London Film Festival preview: the best of new British cinema and beyond

by Jason Solomons | Financial Times

First-timers and old hands take on issues of faith, disability and prejudice in a rich crop of movies

When was the last new movement in British cinema? Not like the mockney movement of Lock, Stock imitators scraped from the bottom of the smoking barrel in the late 1990s, but a real cinematic trend heralding a flurry of new directors and a new style?

My fear is that you have to go back to the British New Wave of the 1960s to discern any such movement. A new restoration of Bryan Forbes’s The L-Shaped Room (1962), playing at the BFI London Film Festival, reminded me of that, with its dingy Notting Hill lodging house and Bafta-winning performance by Leslie Caron as the pregnant young French woman forced to have her illegitimate baby in secret.

The ’60s are also mythologised at the festival by real cockney Michael Caine, who has narrated and produced the documentary My Generation, which features a likely array of swingers and scoundrels, from David Bailey and Paul McCartney to Marianne Faithfull and Mary Quant, all looking back on the days when they broke the rules and the mould. It’s a fond compendium of memories, mini-skirts and mods, with music and archive footage one has seen and heard many times before, but director David Batty stitches it all together as nattily as a Doug Hayward suit, discerning a narrative of teenage rebellion and a flourishing of ideas until, the moral posits, drugs brought about the movement’s swift end. You can’t always get what you want, indeed.

Such re-purposed nostalgia, however, inspired me to seek a similar energy — or synergy — in the 37 new British films playing at this year’s festival. After all, it’s a British Film Institute festival, and the BFI is now one of the country’s major producers, championing and nurturing new voices. Could it be that under its umbrella and along its red carpets, a new generation of UK film-makers is emerging, with similar styles and themes in their work, shaped by our fractured times and by the joined-up thinking of a new generation of film executives?

The three directors put forward for the £50,000 IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award, which kicked off the LFF this week, are certainly distinctive. Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy, which went on to win the award, is one of the rare British movies I can recall that wrestles with the issue of faith. Set among a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Manchester (Kokotajlo is himself a former Witness), it features a superb performance from actress Siobhan Finneran, a veteran of Coronation Street, Downton Abbey and Happy Valley who was also, exactly 30 years ago, Rita in Alan Clarke’s Thatcher-era sex comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

In Apostasy, Finneran plays a mother, Ivanna, torn between her religious devotion and keeping her family together in the modern world — her youngest daughter Michelle has anaemia, the treatment of which is strictly forbidden by the religion, while her eldest, Luisa, has fallen in love with a Muslim boy at art college.

The tussle between secular and sacred is beautifully nuanced, etched in the confusion on Ivanna’s face and tumbled in the cycle of meetings and stern interventions by the ruling Elders. Structurally, too, Apostasy keeps us guessing, never quite knowing which of these female characters is the centre of the story.

Also telling an outsider story is Rungano Nyoni’s remarkable I Am Not a Witch. One of the few British films selected for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it uses startling African imagery and sounds to tell the story of a young Zambian girl who is shunned by her village for being a witch and — on pain of being turned into a goat — sent to live in a commune of similarly accused and cursed women forced to wear yoke-like harnesses and become tourist attractions.

Nyoni was born in Zambia but raised in Wales and while her debut film recalls the classic African film-making style of, say, Ousmane Sembène or Abderrahmane Sissako, it has warmth and wit wrapped up in satirical anger, and a sense of mystery that suggests the fresh perspective of a hugely promising director.

Alongside these two was Beast, directed by Michael Pearce, and set on his native Jersey. A standout performance from rising star Jessie Buckley burns at the centre of the film, about a young woman brought into conflict with her family by a mysterious man accused of murder. Pearce takes great advantage of the island’s landscape and weather to mirror the emotional maelstrom and delivers a memorable, polished debut.

All three have the detachment of “outsider” movies, but being part of the LFF now brings them into the bosom of the British film establishment. Maintaining distance is difficult. Very quickly, British film-makers often become absorbed by middling costume dramas on small budgets that aren’t enough to truly propel them forward and only succeed in rubbing off the rough edges that made them distinctive in the first place.

Saul Dibb’s adaptation of RC Sherriff’s classroom classic of the trenches, Journey’s End, dodges those bullets and deserves attention for its balance of classicism with an injection of energy and timeliness. A doughty ensemble cast includes Asa Butterfield as the naive, young, eager-to-serve Raleigh, Sam Claflin as the depressed drunk Stanhope and an excellent Paul Bettany, inhabiting the role of Osborne as if he was born to play it.

Toby Jones’s cook, Mason, lends a matter-of-factness that becomes almost comic, given the impending doom, and it’s the downplayed British stoicism that gives this version its emotional heart. There’s a chilling suggestion that, in this to and fro of class and camaraderie, we have changed little in the 100 years since.

Paddy Considine’s Journeyman stars the actor himself, also directing and writing the follow-up to his tough-watch debut Tyrannosaur. Considine plays middleweight boxer Matty Burton, mentally and physically injured in his brutal final fight and now battling through rehabilitation of body and soul for the sake of his wife Emma (a powerful Jodie Whittaker) and baby daughter Mia. Hollywood would have unleashed the full string section on this one, but Considine is made of sterner stuff. The film premieres in the festival next week, so I won’t yet say too much other than, reader, I cried. Twice.

Physical struggle blended with inspirational story is a typical British trope (see Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Eddie Redmayne for details), and that supremely physical actor Andy Serkis duly opened the festival on Wednesday night with his own directing debut, Breathe, about Robin Cavendish and his battle with polio. You may recall Serkis himself brilliantly playing polio-sufferer and pop star Ian Dury in 2010’s Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and his sensitive direction of William Nicholson’s emotional script allows stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy to shine in the leads.

War, pop, defiance and eccentric humour — all British life is here in the current crop. Perhaps it’s adaptability and universality that marks British film out now, the ability to tell stories from Africa, Jersey and Manchester, to work globally and, in the US, to win Oscars, which Martin McDonagh’s firecracker screenplay for the closing night film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, must be a favourite to do.

Of course, to limit oneself to British entries at the LFF would be restrictive and possibly rather depressing. French film-maker Lea Mysius’s debut, Ava, is one of the more striking films I’ve seen, a sensuous, daring piece about a 13-year-old (Noee Abita) having nightmares about losing her sight, then running away with a dangerous gypsy boy and his big black dog while on summer holiday on one of those wild, sexy Atlantic coast beaches.

I was beguiled by German-Israeli romantic comedy The Cakemaker, in which a gay German baker arrives in Jerusalem to confront the wife of the man he secretly loved. Soon his delicious but non-kosher cakes and cookies stir her world around — and from there things then get emotionally very weird.

The best film at this LFF — and the one that should win the Official Competition when it all ends next weekend — is 120 BPM, by France’s Robin Campillo, a brilliant recreation of the formation of the Paris-based Aids activist group ACT UP in the early 1990s. It should have won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, but at least the LFF gives such astoundingly good films a second chance. It’s also now officially France’s Oscar entry, and I would fancy its chances in Hollywood next year, too.

When the films come so thickly, you start to join the dots in front of your eyes. I saw two films featuring a boy and a girl riding a motorbike with a large animal sandwiched between them: the aforementioned Ava and Caribbean-set charmer Bad Lucky Goat, a rewarding if random pick. What can it mean? Probably that I’ve seen too many movies. But that’s what festivals are for — and this one’s only just started.