What to see at the BFI London Film Festival 2021, from Spencer to Succession

·7-min read
 (FILM HANDOUT)
(FILM HANDOUT)

How thrilling is it to be back in cinemas? After last year’s hybrid event, the BFI’s London Film Festival is back too, with a vengeance, boasting a line-up so exciting that the only problem is how to fit everything in. The festival kicks off today, so we trawled the festival programme for our top twelve screenings to catch - which turned out to be a nightmare. We didn’t have space to include new works from Edgar Wright, Todd Haynes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Paul Verhoeven. Everything on the programme is worth a look. Just think of the twelve picks below as the films you should see first.

The Harder They Fall

Made for Netflix, the festival’s opening film is set in America, but has seriously London roots. Lead actor Idris Elba hails from Hackney; director Jeymes Samuel is from Kilburn. A few years ago, Samuel made a “new school” Western, with the late, great Michael K Williams about a bunch of cool, black American gunslingers. This time Samuel’s kept the nifty historical figures (Nat Love and Stagecoach Mary are back), while acquiring a new producer and musical wing-man: Jay-Z. This is the first time, by the way, that Elba has shared the screen with LaKeith Stanfield or Jonathan Majors. The trailer suggests their chemistry is explosive. Yeehaa!

The Souvenir: Part II

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir: Part II
Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir: Part II

Joanna Hogg’s surprisingly funny follow-up to her autobiographical-ish 2019 relationship drama The Souvenir isn’t so much self-involved as an involving narrative about how the “self” is constructed. Hogg’s alter ego, fledging film-maker Julie (the wonderfully introverted Honor Swinton Byrne) is still trying to make sense of the suicide of her poised, heroin-addict boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke). There was always something of the night about Anthony. Prepare yourself for some top haunting, not to mention top wrangles with Richard Ayoade’s put-down king, Patrick.

Spencer

Here’s Pablo Larraín’s extravagantly poetic yet accessible take on what led Princess Diana to leave the Royal family. Kristen Stewart (on top form) is utterly beguiling and plausible as a bulimic, self-harming Diana, while Sally Hawkins, as Diana’s loyal dresser Maggie, is a human curve-ball (a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for this performance, would not go amiss). It’s Christmas at Sandringham, and while there’s plenty of festive sneer, and menacing guns galore, none of the individuals who make Diana sick to her stomach are made to look purely vile. Spencer was snubbed by the jury at Venice, but if the UK buzz is anything to go by, Larraín’s offering remains the people’s choice.

Mothering Sunday

Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young
Josh O’Connor and Odessa Young

This adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel stars the reliably earthy Josh O’Connor as a well-bred young man whose affair, in 1924, with a maid (Sylvia Plath-look-alike Odessa Young, so witchily poised in Shirley), has repercussions for them both. The rest of the cast and crew are far from minor league. Olivia Colman and Colin Firth play Paul’s parents. Alice Birch (Normal People) wrote the script. The whole thing, on paper, sounds rather like Atonement, except in this case, it’s the sensitive, working-class character who morphs into a fêted writer (85-year-old Glenda Jackson; how could we miss the chance to see her?)

The Lost Daughter

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.)
Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021.)

Everybody’s talking about Olivia Colman’s turn in this tense drama about an English academic’s weird holiday on a Greek island, loosely based on the novel by Elena Ferrante. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, making her writing/directing debut, was famously told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old man when she was 37. With this film, she seizes the chance to make a middle-aged and imperfect women central to the proceedings, while exploring guilt, motherhood and rage. If the reviews from Venice are to be believed, the abundantly talented Gyllenhaal has found herself a brilliant new career.

Belle

Belle
Belle

Anyone thrown for a loop by pulchritudinous anime and/or raw teenage dramas needs to check out Mamoru Hosoda’s latest, which made tidal waves at Cannes. A follow-up to subversive fable Wolf Children and the Oscar-nominated Mirai, Belle, as the title suggests, offers a variation on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with shy, traumatised country schoolgirl Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) re-inventing herself as a bold singer in a virtual kingdom called U, only to discover that online ecstasy has its limits. Critics keep raving about Suzu/Belle’s friend, a humpback whale whose body is encrusted with stereo speakers. I want to see that whale! I want to take this trip!

The Power of the Dog

Mercurial New Zealander Jane Campion won the Silver Lion for this modern-day Western. From the looks of the trailer, it marks a serious change of pace for Benedict Cumberbatch who, as cowboy Phil, whistles with all the psychotic insouciance of Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. Meanwhile, Jesse Plemons (such a revelation in I’m Thinking of Ending Things) is Phil’s brother George, and the lesser-spotted Kirsten Dunst George’s new wife, Rose. Will Rose become Phil’s latest victim or will she prove a catalyst for change? With music by Jonny Greenwood, we’re expecting a twisted ode to the power of love.

Titane

Titane
Titane

A chance to see the controversial Palme d’Or winner Julia “Raw” Ducournau’s genre-defying odyssey, which centres on a Titanium-boosted woman, Alexie (Agathe Rousselle), who, among other things, writhes on the bonnets of cars for money (who knew that was a job?). Alexie also kills strangers, impersonates a missing boy and gets preggers after having sex with a car. Some say it’s a mess, but one thing’s for sure, The Zombie’s track, She’s Not There, has never been put to better use.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson says he had two wishes: to make an anthology movie and to make a movie about The New Yorker. Each segment of The French Dispatch is an “article” that appears in a weekly magazine, edited and written by Americans living in a fictional city, Ennui-sur-Blase. Chuckling already? Me, too! After almost two years of Covid hell, the thought of hanging out with Wes’ quixotic creations feels beyond soothing. As usual, he’s attracted the smartest actors in town including Bill Murray, Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton and Elisabeth Moss. Wes is the Willy Wonka of wit. These brilliant thesps are his loyal and flexible oompa loompas.

Flee

Flee
Flee

Suspenseful, nuanced and now even more timely, this Sundance winner was executive produced by Riz Ahmed. A documentary that combines animation with archive footage, Flee tells the story of Amin Nawabi, a gay academic living in Denmark, who was born and raised in Afghanistan. Amin’s family, we’re told, were killed after country was taken over by the Mujahideen. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen met Amin when they were both teenagers. Yet, as Jonas questions Amin, it becomes clear how much the film-maker doesn’t know about his friend. The animation (redolent of Waking Life and Waltz with Bashir) is beautiful. The secrets and lies are just as dazzling.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Macbeth (Photo Courtesy of Apple)
Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand in Macbeth (Photo Courtesy of Apple)

In which Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the greedy and doomed Macbeths, in a production directed by Joel Coen. McDormand hasn’t worked with her husband Joel since Hail, Caesar! (and her last leading role, in a Coen brothers production, was way back in 1996; see Fargo for details). This collaboration – a portrait of a seriously unhealthy marriage, shot completely in black and white – looks set to play to Joel and Frannie’s strengths, though Coen’s films usually have a comical streak and if memory serves, laughs are thin on the ground in this particular yarn.

Succession

I know, I know, it’s TV. But getting first dibs on episodes 1 and 2 of Jesse Armstrong’s HBO show (about to launch its third series) represents a major coup for the festival. As ever, Armstrong and his team explore, with semi-nauseating precision, how the rich and powerful roll, specifically Brian Cox’s media giant Logan Roy, now playing ever more sophisticated mind games with his offspring. What do we actually mean, when we describe dramas as cinematic? Seeing this on a huge screen, with hundreds of other people, could prove to be the film event of the year.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 6-17 at the BFI Southbank and selected London cinemas, as well as selected cinemas around the UK. Go to whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff to find out more and book tickets

Read More

The Power of the Dog review: Give Cumberbatch the Best Actor Oscar now

The French Dispatch review: Wes Anderson’s ode to crumpled journos

The best films to see this autumn, from Dune to Spencer

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