Truth and daring in London

For 16 days, the eyes of global filmdom were on London and its 54th Film Festival.

Fifi Haroon November 08, 2010

For 16 days, the eyes of global filmdom were on London and its 54th Film Festival.

The Festival is known for its focus on World, European and in particular British Cinema. It may not be as glitzy as the big three (Cannes, Venice and Berlin) or as definitive for independent cinema as Sundance, but London is a major premiere venue with a huge cinema audience already in place.  There are also enough gala screenings and photo-ops to please the paparazzi: this year alone Hilary Swank, Keira Knightley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Freida Pinto, Javier Bardem, Minnie Driver, Mark Rufallo, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield walked the red carpet. Add to that Danny Boyle (receiving a special award) and Martin Scorcese (talking about the British Film Institute’s archives) and you have a formidable line-up.

The Festival, however, started off with a bang of a PR strategy and a whimper of a film. The gangly yet entrancing Keira Knightley scampered across the carpet to occupy her seat at the press conference desk, following the purposeful stride of a confident, blonde-topped Carey Mulligan. It would be difficult to conjure up a more picturesque moment to launch the opening day; British cinema’s most successful female exports to Hollywood together on one stage to promote the film version of Booker prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel  Never Let Me Go. And yet the movie, a somewhat tortured, desolate look at sequestered mortality, curiously foretold the mood of this year’s festival, which was replete with slow, bleak films. A lack of optimism that was not totally out of keeping with a world preoccupied with recession, welfare cuts and pockets of unending war.

With Ishiguro present, the mood of the press conference seemed quaintly deferential. The glamorous cast and director talked at length about how crucial it had been to remain true to the celebrated writer’s vision of stoic clones groomed at a sheltered boarding school to serve as organ donors for privileged prototypes. Such hallowed reverence for the original sometimes handicaps a film; Alex Garland’s screenplay is smart but overwhelmed by the need to reassure Ishiguro’s readers of remaining true to the book. On screen, the permutations of a “what if?” sci-fi medical police state set unconventionally in the past — the 1990’s to be precise — come across as faintly incredible for recent history.  And the love story of Kathy H ( Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) is so obviously doomed that it doesn’t invite emotional investment.  Or perhaps it is the inevitable discomfort brought about by the film’s dispassionate acceptance of mortality.

What holds Never Let Me Go together is some fine acting: Carey Mulligan is the caretaker of the film, narrating most of the story and telling it well.  Andrew Garfield’s Tommy is boyishly appealing and Keira Knightley, known more for her ability to embody traditional Englishness better than most of her generation, is fairly well cast as the deceptive, but eventually regretful Ruth who seduces Tommy away from Kathy. “I hadn’t read the book,” she cheerfully admits, “but when I did it was just so astonishing and unique.”  She didn’t instantly take to her character’s deviousness: “I didn’t like her and it’s tricky playing people you don’t like. But then it was great to be a villain for a change,” she adds with a chuckle.

Perhaps most missed in Never Let Me Go were the bigger villains; the state which perpetrates the large organ donor programme and creates a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots is never seen in a story where eventually everyone has to let go.

In contrast, British-Pakistani writer Ayub Khan Din’s belated follow up to the infinitely funny East is East takes one back to a more idyllic Pakistan in the mid-70’s. West is West follows George Khan (Om Puri) back home to rural Punjab with two sons from his British marriage as he attempts to make amends for abandoning his first wife (Ila Arun). Sequels to a cult hit are notoriously risky and West is West can’t quite rise to the challenge of its predecessor. It’s perfectly watchable, even likable but just not as sharp or funny.

Where it does work is when George’s youngest son Sajid (a spirited debut from Aqib Khan) roams the Punjab, playing matchmaker for his orthodox elder brother (Emil Marwa).  “I am an annoying teenager so I was just playing myself,” laughs Aqib Khan. There are also more laughs to be had in the inevitable culture-clash when George’s Crimplene clad second wife Ella (Linda Bassett) arrives in the village.

But Ayub Khan Din’s bucolic utopia seems another country; the mid-70’s was a changing time for Pakistan, with most opposition leaders in detention and ZA Bhutto attempting to woo the expanding religious vote bank. West is West doesn’t hint at any of those contradictions in the family’s quest to re-establish its Pakistani roots. Whereas East is East had a sound grip on the political ramifications of being brown and British in the seventies, George Khan Ka Pakistan is locked into a nostalgic time warp curiously punctuated with Sai Zahoor in a cameo appearance singing the Coke Studio version of “Toomba”.

Appropriately, the cast of West is West arrived at the film’s premiere in a vividly painted Pakistani bus, with Aqib Khan looking every inch a new star in a shiny achkan. Makes sense for a film which ultimately packs the country into a tourist’s suitcase.

Shot in 16 mm the enigmatic psychological thriller Black Swan is Darren Aronofsky’s follow up to The Wrestler. At first glance the two films appear to be polar opposites; what exactly does the grotesque, theatrical world of wrestling have to do with the delicate, graceful milieu of the ballet? Surprisingly, everything. Aronofsky creates comparable worlds of physical pain and fearful ambition which collide with disastrous ramifications.

Evoking memories of Michael Powell’s Red Shoes, Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) a soloist with the New York City Ballet, whose preoccupation with perfection enhances her first lead performance as the angelic white swan but limits her from conjuring up the the fire and fury needed for her seductive black twin. Chastised incessantly by the company’s Svengali artistic director (Vincent Cassell) for this shortcoming and smothered by her troubled mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina becomes unhinged, spiralling into paranoia and self harm.

This is a fascinating film handled by a brilliant auteur who paints a canvas equally enthralling and disturbing with masterful strokes. “I knew I wanted to get the camera right onstage with the dancers,” explains Aronofsky, who lets us hear each gasp up close. At the same time he clearly believes in cinematic illusion: “I’m not into making it look real, I’m into stylisation.” It’s a brilliant ploy; combining both the majesty of the performance and the deep anxiety that accompanies it. And, as if on cue, Tchaikovsky’s mesmerising score adds a perfect sense of high drama.

Despite the ubiquitous stuffed pink toys that inhabit Nina’s bedroom this is not a pretty tale.  “The world of ballet is very insular and notoriously hard to enter,” muses the director. “Usually when you’re shooting a film around them people are flattered but in ballet they just don’t care.” Mila Kunis, who plays the seductive Lily, the newest addition to the corps and Nina’s possible rival, adds: “Both actors and dancers are really competitive, but I’ve never met anyone as disciplined and ambitious as a dancer. The physical part of the role was just so challenging.”

Black Swan avoids the daintiness of ballet, opting to emphasise its demanding physicality, bulimic purges and all. The camera confronts scraping feet and bleeding toenails unhesitatingly as the audience winces. Natalie Portman is magnificent in the title role; dancing many of her scenes herself, and capturing Nina’s constant anxiety expressively. There is only one road forward for both her and this film — and it leads to the Oscars.

Added onto the festival playlist at the last minute, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere is the kind of film that seems like it’s going nowhere even while its characters travel across the world. There are no huge dramatic moments or grand revelations: the camera lingers and then lingers some more, magnifying everyday household chores or sometime even a setting into something monumental. This is real life close-up: mundane, lonely, uncomfortable — even for a celebrity.

Stephen Dorff stars as Johnny Marco, a grungy Hollywood star, sort of Johnny Depp but not quite as attractive, who lives holed up in the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnny spends his life sleeping around or falling asleep, sometimes combining the two. You see him travelling to Italy to collect an award with his daughter, Chloe (a brilliantly natural Elle Fanning); a scene which apparently went down particularly well at the Venice Film Festival where Sofia Coppola picked up the Golden Lion.

Apart from the beautifully modulated moments between Johnny and his daughter, Somewhere can sometimes come across as flat as Holland. This is a quiet film, perhaps too quiet. It will leave most audiences perplexed. Some will appreciate it as a director’s movie but unlike Sofia Coppola’s endearing debut film, this one may well be lost in translation. Freida Pinto stars in Miral as a schoolgirl who grows up cloistered in a refugee school run by social activist Hind Hosseini (Hiam Abbas) but ends up becoming embroiled in the Intifada in East Jerusalem. That the film chooses to tell the story of the Palestinian resistance from a female perspective raises expectations. The heavy-handed way that it is told brings them crashing down.

Director Julian Schnabel turned up on the red carpet in his trademark pyjamas accompanied by Freida Pinto, writer Rula Jebreal, on whose life the film is based, and Yasmine Al Massri, the Lebanese actor who plays Miral’s damaged alcoholic mother. One look at Rula Jebreal and you can guess why Schnabel cast Freida Pinto in the lead role: the two look uncannily similar.

Wearing “Alexander McQueen from head to toe,” Freida Pinto apparently researched the role by staying with a Palestinian family for several weeks. “Coming from India, East Jerusalem wasn’t a cultural shock but it was very emotionally upsetting, especially when I interacted with Palestinian children who have witnessed so much hatred in their short lives. I felt right at home though. When I went to the Al Aqsa mosque they just let me walk in. They thought I was Palestinian!”

Schnabel, who is Jewish himself, was half humorous, half touchy when I asked him about how the Jewish community in the US took the film. “They took it fine,” he countered, “Why shouldn’t they?” I could have come up with a few reasons — for one, all the Jewish characters save one are demonised — but his PR thought it may be time to move on.  They were probably right.

The Kids are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family drama went down a treat at the London Film Festival. The film puts a new twist on the dysfunctional American family with two moms instead of one. Ironically, the two women still fall prey to traditional roles with Nic (Annette Benning) playing the dominant provider role and Jules (Julianne Moore) cast as the more motherly, suppressed housewife. The family begins to fall apart when the two kids search for their biological father, bringing Paul (Mark Rufallo) into everyone’s lives.  Nic is threatened, Jules is seduced and the kids — well, the kids are all right until they discover the parents aren’t.

Cholodenko handles that mid area between comedy and drama remarkably well. The film is both funny and moving.  By placing The Kids are All Right in a familiar family milieu Lisa Cholodenko brings the Sapphic into the mainstream. I ask her about this on the red carpet, where she is accompanied by her girlfriend (the film is apparently partly autobiographical) and she looks pleased: “See, that is exactly what we were trying to do! We weren’t looking for an exclusively Lesbian audience. We wanted the film to be seen by people from a variety of backgrounds.”

Mark Rufallo agrees that the film reaches out to a diverse audience. “It’s about time that we had a mainstream film with lesbian characters isn’t it?” he counters. Rufallo is wearing a crushed grey suit and apologetically explains that he didn’t forget to iron it. Apparently “it’s designer — it’s meant to be crumpled!” Casting major stars like Rufallo, Annette Benning and Julianne Moore gives the film commercial clout. The latter, looking stunning in a teal sleeveless shift, walked the red carpet in the highest heels imaginable, chatting and posing for pictures with the crowd. Moore is impossibly tiny in real life, but incredibly charming. Plus she champions the film’s cause articulately: “It isn’t a film about gay rights it’s a film about human rights. Sexual preference is the human right to make that choice.”

The films in the London Film Festival were also about choices made by directors — artistic, political, dramatic, emotional and commercial choices. Cinema can tell the truth or it can enhance the illusion; the important thing is it keeps us enchanted, in love and above all — it keeps us coming back.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2010.


Seema | 10 years ago | Reply Great article, really enjoyed reading it. Pity we wont get to see these films on the big screen. Takes half the fun out of watching a film. Would be so great to see Black Swan in a cinema.
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