London Film Festival
The Pitch: What? The Dickens?
The Review: Modern society is desperate to work out what kind of person you are. But beware, it has only a few descriptions with which to allow you to be labelled. Complexity be damned, on any issue of the day you’ll be lucky if more than two opinions are permissible. The United Kingdom is being inexorably drawn into a time when you must be in favour or opposed to everything. Never mind leaving the European Union, it doesn’t feel as if you can be ambivalent to Marmite these days. Love it or hate it? Them’s your choices, don’t darken this door again with mild admiration or moderate disgust.
Armando Iannucci arrives at his latest film bearing the label of ‘political satirist’, and while it’s a fair description to a point, it comes riding in on an unspoken implication that he’s incapable of anything else. Let’s dispel that label for a start; while it’s true he’s responsible for some of the most scathing, hilarious and unfortunately accurate commentary of the last couple of decades, at the heart of it teems a desire to understand people, to sympathise with the unfortunate and to stare disbelievingly at the grotesque characters that reflect the wider world.
On that basis, it should come as no surprise that Iannucci finds the works of Charles Dickens appealing. Dickens was to the social classes of his era what Iannucci is to the chattering politicians of ours, and their worlds are similarly populated by absurd, outlandish characters that repulse and delight in equal measure. Iannucci and his regular co-collaborator Simon Blackwell have plunged headfirst into Dickens’ world and come up with an adaptation of the writer’s most personal work that feels fresh and vibrant.
Let’s talk about another label that’s cropped up in coverage of this film: “colour-blind”. It’s an odd, almost derogatory term that suggests there is some issue in casting the best people, even if they don’t all conform to the standard casting call for a period picture. How about “meritocracy” instead? The film’s casting is generally applaudable and even the smaller roles are often filled out with faces such as Gwendoline Christie and Paul Whitehouse whose talents brighten even the slender amount of screen time they’re granted.
In being fairly faithful to Dickens’ plot structure and character roster, it also allows for a number of larger roles to make their mark. Chief among these are donkey-obsessed aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and her Charles I-obsessed living companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). Swinton gets to mix her initial brusqueness with a pleasing warmth as time passes, and Laurie’s initial fragility gives way to a mannered, boyish charm, both of whom prove ideal foils for Copperfield and the menagerie of other characters. Peter Capaldi’s Micawber also brightens every scene he appears in, and the comic timing of not only these three, but most of the cast, is so exemplary you could set your watch by it.
There are but two minor disappointments: Ben Whishaw’s obsequious Uriah Heep sneers from under his bowl haircut but never quite provides the foil to add great drama, which the film needs to balance the whimsy and otherwise excellent character work. The other is Copperfield himself, and that’s nothing to do with Dev Patel’s strong, evolving portrayal, more that Copperfield feels absent from the centre of his own story, despite being almost constantly on screen.
It’s structure where this adaptation struggles, with the social observation and coterie of contemptuous figures that flit in and out of David’s life present and correct, but never quite the sure footing of narrative to keep the audience fully invested. Iannucci and Blackwell have softened a few of Dickens’ sharper decisions, partly to allow Copperfield to comment on his own story as he develops as a writer. But devices like this don’t feel as if they carry a full commitment, and the visual trickery of hands reaching into drawings or the story projected on walls is forgotten about for a long stretch in the first half. The gimmicks don’t elevate or elucidate the story in any way, and a stage bound framing device might offer a further connection to Dickens but also feels oddly out of place.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield is very keen to work out what kind of person its hero is, but it’s slightly less sure as to how it’s going to go about it. If I were to offer a few labels to apply, they’d include “delightful”, “heart-warming” and “refreshing”. If the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts, the parts are still worth parting with two hours to enjoy.
Why see it at the cinema: Glorious scenery, with Iannucci making the most of a variety of parts of the British countryside, and a film that does offer a lot of laughs, so is best enjoyed with as much company as possible.
What about the rating? Rated PG for mild violence, threat and brief bloody images. Absolutely fair and nothing to concern most ages.
My cinema experience: The first gala press screening of the 2019 London Film Festival, so I joined several hundred other critics and industry types for an early morning screening. After a year off while it was refurbished, the Odeon Leicester Square once again plays host to such screenings, and I took a reasonably comfortable reclining seat on the front row of the balcony. Also nice to see that the cinema had opened the coffee bar early so I took advantage of a latte and a decent chocolate muffin for breakfast.
The refurbishment has reduced the capacity from around 2,000 to just 800 but both the environment and the seating are significantly improved. The same cannot be said for the audio-visual experience: angles from wide seats are a little improved but the audio is still sometimes muffled by the cavernous space, with quiet dialogue being a particular issue. I passed an engineer on the way out with a Dolby laptop, so I’m hoping the later public screening may have been tweaked slightly.
The film itself represented a slightly odd experience: the stalls were full, and while the film got a number of big laughs from down below, there was an eerie silence from the assembled masses in the balcony. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I guess.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Fifteen-love. (In other words, I’ll get fifteen grand, you get us a drink, love.)
The Review: Despite loving to watch all kinds of it – I’ve taken two weeks off work to watch the Olympics before now – I was terrible at sport at school. In seven years of grammar school I played rugby matches for my house’s C-team, one match for my house’s D-team at cricket before I was substituted at half time and never played again, and was so bad at athletics I once finished a race to discover the teacher had given up and gone in. We did have tennis courts but I never came close to picking up a racket, knowing that I would have comfortably been the worst in my year, or possibly any year. Serve and volley? I’d be happy to accomplish 50% of that. Once. Of course, I went to an all boy’s school, so maybe I’d have had a match at a mixed school.
Don’t worry, I’m not a raging chauvinist, clearly all of the girls would have beaten me as well. (A one-armed monkey with one arm tied behind its back could have given me a decent game, but let’s not go there.) But these were the attitudes prevalent in tennis back when I was born in the Seventies. It’s been an ongoing struggle for women since then to get to parity with their male equivalents. Take, for example, the view that “… our men’s tennis world, the ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing we have more spectators” and that “…[Ladies’] bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… You know, hormones and different stuff.” That would be depressing enough coming from the mouth of a misogynist Seventies tennis pro, but it was actually said by former world number one Novak Djokovic in 2016.
The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) takes us back to the dawn of a revolution in tennis. Billie Jean King was at the top of her game, five-time Grand Slam winner and world number one, but when her frustration at the gap in tournament pay became too great, she and eight other tennis professionals broke away to form their own tournament. When hearing of this, retired champion Bobby Riggs, now in his fifties and addicted to gambling, challenged King to a winner-takes-all match to prove even an older man could comfortably beat a top woman. When King refused, fellow professional Margaret Court stepped in but after being handed a thrashing by Riggs, King had no choice but to step up to defend the honour of all women on the court.
Whether you’re male or female, BATTLE OF THE SEXES represents excellent value for money as it’s three films rolled into one. The first of those is the gender inequality battle, pitching Emma Stone’s King against Steve Carell’s Riggs. This film is broadly comedic, playing to Carell’s strengths as hustler Riggs becomes emboldened by his seemingly effortless superiority. Stone has to butt heads with chauvinist-in-chief of the tennis tour Jack Kramer (a typically smarmy Bill Pullman) while supported by Gladys Heldman, who gets sponsorship for their new ladies’ tour and backs King’s activist impulses. The only real quibble is that Stone’s King feels oddly passive at times, undoubtedly committed to her cause but the fervour never really rising to the surface.
It’s the second of the three films mixed in here that’s the most compelling, where King explores feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn, despite being on the surface happily married. It’s a time when taboos of gender can easily be confronted, if not so easily broken down, but those of sexuality have to remain firmly in the closet in service of the greater cause. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn and hers and Stone’s relationship is tender and their moral dilemmas sketched out believably. The film makes the most of the Seventies setting, from costumes to cinematography, and the warm visual glow afforded to their more private moments justifies pushing the aesthetic as far as possible. Again, if there’s one quibble it’s that King’s husband Larry feels little more than a plot cipher.
The third and final film is the one where we have the biggest problems. For as much as BATTLE OF THE SEXES seems embarrassed by it, it’s a film about tennis, and it’s the sports elements that are by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, sports films can sometimes feel desperately predetermined in their dramatic arc, especially when many viewers will already know the result, but the best of them can still give you a thrill and the sporting elements have the feel of someone who’s only ever watched sport on TV and most likely under duress. There’s never any sense of the tactical nous King employed or seemingly any interest in making the tennis more than a distraction; at some points it’s not even readily apparent who’s winning, sucking any excitement from the spectacle served up.
So Dayton and Faris’ film ticks plenty of boxes, satisfying as a human drama, entertaining as a comedy but serving up a double fault when it comes to the actual sport. That said, it should still drive the point home about the continuing disparity in the pay in professional sport; despite the Grand Slam tournaments now paying women and men equally, the top women will still earn about half of their male equivalents, which means that this battle is one that still needs to be fought, and it can just about consider BATTLE OF THE SEXES a worthy ally in that struggle.
Why see it at the cinema: The comedic elements of the film undoubtedly work better with an audience for company, and seeing it on a large screen helps to follow the tennis because it’s all shot statically from above as if on TV.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. (Don’t worry, the only balls you see are on court.)
My cinema experience: The joys of press screenings at the London Film Festival mean that this film started at 8:15 a.m., for me, when it’s a two-hour journey into London, that’s an early start. Always nice to know that you have the leopard print seats and awkwardly angled screen of the Odeon Leicester Square to look forward to at the end of your epic trek. In particular, the sound can get very muffled at points; it’s a shame that London’s largest showcase for film (with over 1,600 seats) isn’t also its best.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Choose life.
The Review: If you’re looking for a film to open Britain’s leading film festival then as soon as someone offers you more British acting talent than a bonnet full of Jane Austen adaptations, most of them with finely honed RP accents and with an opening scene culminating in a cricket ball smashing a tea cup, then you’d probably bite their hand off. You’d probably also expect that a hard-working British film would be stiff upper lips, struggles against adversity and as grim as Ken Loach’s kitchen sink. Breathe serves up two out of three in a reasonable debut for Andy Serkis, but suffers from never quite being sure what it wants to be.
With a list of British talent longer than your arm, some in blink-and-miss roles (Diana Rigg’s screen credit may get more time than she does), Serkis has certainly assembled a talented acting roster, but the only two who really have the opportunity to do more than reading their lines are Andrew Garfield as polio patient Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as his supportive wife Diana. When stricken with the illness at a young age, Robin can’t face living a life staring at the hospital ceiling, but Diana takes on the medical profession and enlists the help of a creative friend or two to give Robin a new lease of life.
There’s plenty that works here, with Garfield and Foy putting in strong performances. The script also brings out British qualities you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a film, with stoicism and determination supplemented by inventiveness and eccentricity. For large parts this is less a grim slogfest, more a vibrant celebration of life and its possibilities, with a handful of satisfyingly off-kilter moments thrown in. While Robin gradually escapes the confines of his hospital bed, the depictions of those less fortunate give the opportunity for some bizarre, discomfiting images, particularly at a clinical hospital that thinks it’s cutting edge.
Serkis has worked on this in down time of his Jungle Book adaptation, and his direction style could be damned with faint praise as fine. He does get chance for a little special effects wizardry with Tom Hollander portraying both of Diana’s twin brothers, but other than that he’s content never to stray from the confines of a chocolate box lid picture, and the film is sometimes as sweet when it desperately needs more courage in its convictions. Society still hasn’t found equality for disabled people in many areas and films highlighting this struggle are as important as those exploring divides of gender, race and orientation but Breathe calls attention to human frailty and meaningful questions of existence without ever suggesting it truly wants to engage with them.
This is particularly noticeable in the final stretch, when questions of Robin’s right to life become flipped on their heads. The last act aims to engage the heart and squeeze the tear ducts when a more confident director would have tapped at your mind and soul as well. It’s a shame, for while Breathe should play well to anyone in the the middle-aged art house crowd who prefers their films with the rough edges sanded off, the material had the potential for a truly great British film and the aftertaste here is one of squandered opportunity. Hopefully as Serkis hones his craft, he’ll be willing to encourage a degree more boldness in his screenwriting collaborators.
Why see it in the cinema: Enjoy the view, from sweeping Kenyan vistas to the rolling English countryside, and see if you can hold back the tears at the end when your neighbour is struggling.
What about the rating? This one’s a 12A for infrequent bloody images, mainly when Robin is struggling in later life (although the old age make up Garfield’s sporting is perhaps more horrific).
My cinema experience: After two weeks of pre-festival screenings at the well-appointed BFI Southbank, this was the first trip the Odeon Leicester Square (and my first visit there since seeing Armageddon over twenty years ago). The uncomfortable leopard print seats and terrible viewing angle from the stalls didn’t convince me I’d missed much. That was all forgiven when director Serkis appeared to give the film a five minute intro.
The Score: 7/10
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate my Twitter feed for a number of things: I’ve met people and made new acquaintances, both physical and virtual, it’s allowed me to articulate the general insanity of my inner monologue in a way that people cannot ignore – apart from all the ones that blocked me or reported me for spam – and it’s generally the first thing to alert me to the important events of life, which these days are a mixture of instant tributes to famous people dying or details of new food products. What it was full of today was a succession of people expressing their views about the two decisions made regarding press screenings for the London Film Festival.
If you don’t follow a large selection of people who are either professional journalists or hardcore bloggers, then you’ll have missed a day’s worth of indignation of various levels of righteousness. The two decisions announced today are that: (1) rather than having this privilege for free, anyone wishing to see press screenings will need to pay £36 for said privilege, and (2) that the press screenings have been moved to the Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue in the Trocadero. One of these decisions is a non-story and one is a travesty, and you can probably guess my views on both.
In case you can’t, then Twitter has had plenty of views of its own. The general consensus on the former seems to be that it’s only doing what other festivals already do, that the BFI is a charity and not a profit-making organisation, that anyone working as a journalist probably ought to claim this back and anyone else should consider themselves lucky to get such a large amount of entertainment for such a small amount of money, given that from what I can tell they have no documented commitment to write reviews for everything they see off the back of it. By general consensus, I mean that of those people I happen to agree with, of course. But everyone is entitled to their opinion, and when it all comes down to it whether or not a bunch of people who would probably run over hot coals if it meant seeing some decent films might have to pay the price of a moderate night out for two weeks of previews, it’s probably of little consequence.
What’s more disturbing is that, of all of the fine and varied cinemas in the West End, the BFI have chosen what’s widely considered as the worst cinema in London to host press screenings this year. I would possibly dispute the worst label – last time I was in the Odeon Panton St, it smelled heavily of pee, and I’m just glad the film was only an hour and a half – but I can testify from personal experience that quality of a Cineworld is inversely proportional to its distance from Piccadilly Circus. I’ve been to them as far north as Runcorn and St. Helens, and as long as you stay outside the M25 they’re pretty decent. By the time you get to the likes of Enfield or West India Quay, the seats are lumpy and / or hard, the projection’s occasionally iffy and security guards have to regularly circle the screenings. By the time you get to Haymarket or Shaftesbury Avenue, the screens are scratched, the seats are atrocious and a standard Cineworld card just won’t cut it.
There’s an easy solution to this – spend all of the money from the subs on tarting up that dive in the Trocadero – but that’s not likely to happen. Still, the purist in me would like those arbitrating on whether or not Joe Public should part with upwards of £15 a ticket for the actual festival to not be distracted by the poor quality of the surroundings that they’re having to watch the films in. It’s also made me think about how much money I invest into the production of this blog. I moderate comments on the blog, simply in an effort to filter spam, but the only time I rejected a comment was when someone accused me of being a wannabe film journalist. What I’ve actually done is attempt to channel my passion for, and extensive spending on, cinema into something more productive by helping others to filter the cinematic wheat from the movie chaff.
This was brought home to me most clearly on a visit here, while working away:
The Reel Cinema in Plymouth, seen here in 2008, and very much looking like it does today, although the paint is a little more flaky and the stair carpet a little more worn. Some of the fixtures and fittings may pre-date me, and that’s saying something, but the staff were friendly, the concessions reasonable, and I could even overlook the fact that I was sat at an odd angle to the screen as it wasn’t the same width as the seating when I discovered that the Wednesday night special ticket that I purchased was £3.40. That wouldn’t even buy you a scoop of Pick ‘N’ Mix in the West End.
I like to delude myself into thinking that I get reasonable value for money, but by sheer volume cinema is still a heavy investment for me. Last year I saw 200 films, around half of which were thanks to my CIneworld card – around £180 for the year – and I also did FrightFest for a day (£54), an all-nighter (£30), forty-two films at the Cambridge film festival (somewhere around £200), plus my memberships for the Picturehouse chain and the Prince Charles Cinema and the other forty or so tickets I paid for in cinemas across the land with no membership at an average of around £9 a pop. I make that around £850 – 900, and that’s without food or travel to any of the venues. You could get a decent car or a weekend break or two for that sort of money, but I plough it into my hobby for the sheer love of it. (It would also explain why I’ve never got any money.)
And that’s what it all comes back to – that, and indeed this blog, are ultimately a hobby. I could never see myself applying for accreditation for writing this, even if I have as The Movie Evangelist churned out 450 posts at an average of 1,000 words a time (that’s the equivalent of around five novels in the past three and a bit years) in the name of trying to encourage you, the reader, to see your films in a cinema. Somehow the fact that this is just a part time undertaking has always made me feel that even applying for such a thing – with the likely suspicion I’d be turned down anyway – would be a bit of a cheat, especially as each of my reviews now reflect on the cinema experience, and if I’m not doing that as a paying punter, it all becomes a bit pointless. That unwillingness to apply for accreditation either makes me (a) wonderfully principled, (b) hopelessly naive, (c) really not especially clued up as to how I should go about writing a film blog or (d) all of the above. Either way, I’ll see you in the stalls with my full price ticket come the festival. The Movie Evangelist – reassuringly expensive.
The Review: Consciousness is a fragile thing. Somehow, the collection of atoms and molecules that make up our brains manage to form thoughts and memories, and thankfully the organ that stores that operations centre in each of us has a fairly hard shell protecting it from shocks and damage. Sadly, the one thing it can’t protect us from is the passage of time, and sooner or later that will catch up with all of us. It’s amazing that something so complex keeps running for so long in most of us, and despite the advances in science in the 21st century the finest minds of all of us haven’t yet managed to either successfully extend that lifespan, or indeed to replicate the complex functions that make us human. But when science gets to that point, will we be accepting of our new robot friends, or fear our potential new overlords and the uprising that might follow?
It’s common for films to assume the latter, despite the fact that the appliance of science generally seems to be directed to make life more comfortable for us mere mortals. Robot & Frank follows the former path, and when his son Hunter (James Marsden) decides he needs to devote more time to his own family, rather than weekly ten hour round trips to his ungrateful father Frank (Frank Langella), he gets him a robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Initially both he and his world traveller absentee daughter (Liv Tyler) are resistant to the idea, but once Frank latches onto the potential of a robot friend, his enthusiasm grows. Frank, it seems, has a shady past and sticky fingers, one he’s not even keen to share with the lady at the library who’s caught his eye (Susan Sarandon), and what better sidekick than a piece of easily swayed modern technology with Frank’s best interests at heart?
At its core Robot and Frank is a poignant tale about memory and the passage of time. While set in the future, the shading and details make it feel close to our own time, but just as believable as other, grander, futuristic vistas in bigger budget films. It’s not about the technology, but the lack of that personal connection, and those like Frank still clinging to the physical elements of the world are seen to be relics, almost museum pieces. Frank’s failing memory occasionally sees him drifting into the world of his past, and there’s a deep poignancy to his yearning for the restaurant now replaced by a home store or the library throwing out all of its books.
But deeper than that is the exploration of family. Frank’s son and daughter come across initially as disaffected and tied only by the obligation of bloodlines, but it becomes clear that for every action, there’s a reaction and Frank’s certainly seen a lot of action. That Robot & Frank succeeds so well in that family dynamic is down not only to the strength of the performances from those involved, but also to the script and direction, which invests the characters with genuine emotion and which manages to pull off some late twists deftly, without the feeling of soap opera melodrama.
At the core of the movie in every sense are the two titular characters. Initially reluctant to take on his robot servant, Frank starts to see the possibilities and runs through the whole range of potential clichés, from odd couple domestic drama to mismatched buddy heist movie and eventually to surprisingly tender and almost heartbreaking scenes as Frank starts to form the kind of bond with a machine he’s never managed with a human. Warm and resonant, but playful and mischievous and ultimately deep and thought-provoking, Robot & Frank packs a wide array of ideas into its slender running time, and handles every single one beautifully. If you ever imagined having your own robot as a child, the thought of that coming true might just equate to the joy that Robot & Frank could bring; the prospect that it never will in our lifetimes may just match the bitter-sweet feeling you’ll get from it as well.
Why see it at the cinema: See this with a big audience to share the emotional rollercoaster, as well as a decent selection of laughs from the inappropriate OAP.
The Score: 10/10