LFF 2018 Day 1 – Widows

Today marks the opening of this year’s BFI London Film Festival. From today until 21st October cinemas across London will be screening the latest and greatest that cinema has to offer (and a few duds no doubt too). The festival opens tonight with visionary director, and LFF regular, Steve McQueen’s latest Widows.


Liam Neeson leads a criminal gang as they steal a large cash amount from a local rival. Within minutes of the film opening Neeson and friends die in a spectacular showdown with the police that takes their illicit haul down with them. Following his death, Neeson’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself not just losing a husband but inheriting the $2 million debt he incurred by dying mid-heist. After uncovering her late husband’s plans for another, bigger heist Veronica assembles her fellow widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to do what their husbands were too deceased to finish.

If the above sounds less like a Steve McQueen film and more like the plot of a Lynda La Plante series then you’d be right; McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn adapted their screenplay from La Plante’s 1983 ITV series. The action has been moved from England to Chicago but Flynn’s experience in writing twisty thrillers means the criminal nature of the film is left intact. What McQueen has brought to proceedings is a clever focus on racial inequality in North America and cynical white politicians who try to exploit them. This mix of generic crime drama with something more meaningful elevates the script above its genre mates.

As a director McQueen absolutely excels. From the opening sequence of machismo-driven “romantic” moments intercut with the explosive events that lead to our titular widows earning their name, we are treated to a film made by a man with an eye for detail. With a simple pan of his camera McQueen can play with dialogue and make subtle revelations about the nature of his characters. McQueen has brought Widows a long way from early 80s ITV but there are moments when the necessities of plot come barging in and exposition ruins an otherwise prefect composition. It is the more traditional elements of Widows that holds it back from being a McQueen classic but equally I can see it becoming a modern crime staple.

Viola Davis is an absolute star in the lead role. She holds the film together through her steely determination as she plays a woman who is both strong and falling apart internally. Outside of the widows are a large cast of fine actors keeping the surrounding plot rolling on while Davis, Rodriquez, and Debicki give us our reason to keep caring.

Widows screens at the festival on 10th, 11th, and 12th October before being released in the UK on 6th November.

LFF 2018 – It’s That Time of Year Again…

Brace yourselves. It’s that time of year when I start warming up the blog in the hopes of spending a good chunk of my October watching the best films the world has to offer at the BFI London Film Festival. The full programme is revealed next week but some of the highlights teased so far have me restoring my faith in cinema again. Below are the three that have caught my eye; each from an LFF stalwart. All male directors though… Sorry.

Steve McQueen’s Widows

It has been five years since McQueen had me weeping into my press pass with 12 Years a Slave. Having given us enough time to collect ourselves he returns to London with Widows; a female crime thriller co-written by Gillian Flynn and adapted from a Lynda La Plante TV series. If that pedigree weren’t confusing enough the cast includes Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, and Liam Neeson. What an embarrassment of riches.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite

Having confounded me in previous years with The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer Lanthimos is back at LFF with what is likely to be a festival favourite. Starring the highest paid non-Marvel actress in cinema Emma Stone, and UK TV’s most powerful actress Olivia Colman, The Favourite is an 18th century English farce about Queen Anne and her correctly spelled favourite. As someone who considers The Lobster to be Lanthimos at his best I can’t wait to see him reunited with Colman in a much meatier role.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo
In 2010, my first year in London, I watched Boris Johnson introduce Mike Leigh’s Another Year. The film had been funded by the UK Film Council which the Tories had just scrapped. Ah the fun we all had back then! Leigh is the only filmmaker I have seen watching a film at LFF when he had nothing at the festival himself – he sat behind me for the five hour Japanese drama Happy Hour in 2015 – so has proven himself as a true patron of the festival. Returning to the period genre he mastered so well with Mr Turner, Leigh is this time portraying Manchester’s 1819 Peterloo Massacre with the film’s premiere actually taking place in Manchester not London. Mass violence is not something that screams Mike Leigh, but I have no doubt he will tackle it masterfully.

12 Years a Slave – LFF Film Review

12 Years a Slave

Slavery is not quite a taboo subject but is certainly not one that is dealt with seriously in cinematic terms very often. At the start of 2013 we were given Tarantino’s Django Unchained which tackled slavery in a stylised fashion with bloodshed being the main method of emancipation and without me ever really getting a sense of the brutality of life as a slave. With Tarantino at the helm the film felt all too fictional to have an effect. Within just the first few minutes of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave I felt like I could finally comprehend just how slaves were seen in pre-Civil War America in the eyes of their masters. These were not human beings, they are a commodity and closer to cattle than anything deserving basic rights.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the free black man Solomon Northup who is kidnapped and sold back into slavery while his wife and children are left behind to assume him dead. More used to a life as a relatively respected gentleman and musician Solomon finds himself stripped of everything he owns down to his name and struggles to retain his dignity and sense of self. After being sold on to a relatively kindhearted plantation owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Solomon struggles to keep his head down and after rubbing up an overseer (Paul Dano) the wrong way is sold on to a brutal new master called Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (Sarah Paulson).

It is on this second plantation that Solomon suffers the most as he gradually loses all hope of ever returning to his civilised life and more importantly his family. His learned past does not do Solomon any favours as his intelligence frequently threatens to leave him out of favour with his master and therefore suffer at the thin end of a whip. The only slave sticking out more than Solomon is a young woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who has caught the amorous eye of Epps and with it the scorn of Epps’ wife. Patsey brings about some of the most graphic violence in the film which hits home, hard.

The plot of 12 Years a Slave is not a complicated one as we stick with Solomon throughout his years spent enslaved. The day in, day out barbarism that surrounds him is displayed without glamorisation by McQueen in a film that is beautiful to behold but positively painful to watch. Here the violence is not cartoonish and the audience is made to feel every lashing delivered by the whip and you are never sure when the next beating will come. The whole 2+ hours were a hard-hitting experience and while I would never suggest that I enjoyed the film as such it truly is a masterpiece that manages to be powerful and intimately epic.

Ejiofor may be surrounded by more recognisable names (other than those already mentioned Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti also pop up) but he more than holds his own as he takes the substantial weight of the film on his shoulders. It is Ejiofor who leads us on this journey with every grimace and wince his detailed performance brings with it. He is nothing short of magnificent which will be no surprise to anyone who has seen any of his work to date.

12 Years a Slave is a searing film that takes its weighty subject seriously whilst not scrimping on cinematic artistry. I cried for the second time this week and the audience of press applauded the film which is not a common occurrence. Expect to be hearing a lot about this film when the Oscars come around.

12 Years a Slave screens at the festival on the 18th, 19th and 20th October and is in UK cinemas on 24th January 2014.

BFI London Film Festival 2013

Shame – Review

In Shame Steve McQueen directs Michael Fassbender as sex addict Brandon, a man who is forced to take a second look at the way he lives his life during a visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), as he finds they have too much in common when it comes to their attitudes to sex.

Shame has been a popular topic for discussion for months, and we certainly weren’t immune, not for the assured acting or dazzling direction on display, but for the (frankly intimidating) full frontal nudity and apparently endless sex scenes. Having now actually seen the film I was surprised to find that the sex wasn’t such a huge presence throughout, yes there was plenty there but it never felt excessive or unnecessary. McQueen also made a good job of filming the sex in a static, matter-of-fact manner without the soft focus and close-ups of body parts we’re so familiar with. Only one particularly sleazy sex scene towards the end is given the glossy treatment, but is all so seedy and Fassbender looks so miserable that it can’t be described as titillating.

On the subject of McQueen’s direction, isn’t it gorgeous? The film is filled with stunning shots with some inspired camera placements (bear with me). Often in Shame the camera remains still throughout a scene, allowing the action to play out around it whether fully on-screen or not. At various points the camera is left behind the heads of two characters as they talk, this seemingly bizarre choice is well-judged. By having the audience essentially lurking in the room behind the characters McQueen makes the actions on-screen seem all the more real and transforms the viewer from an audience member into a trespassing voyeur. Editing can often serve to distance us from a film, but leave us standing just behind a couple on a station platform and we could just as easily be eavesdropping on a conversation out in the real world.

As the damaged pair of siblings, Fassbender and Mulligan are both playing characters hiding their fragile underbelly. Mulligan as Sissy is an outwardly outgoing individual masking her internal suffering while Fassbender’s Brandon is a more reserved soul, seemingly completely in control while unable to tame his libido. Powerful acting from two of Britain’s future national treasures. My biggest worry with Shame was that I would find it hard to empathise with an oversexed Lothario but gradually Fassbender managed to coax some sympathy from me. While I was never exactly rooting for Brandon, by the closing credits he had earned my pity at the very least. Curse you Fassbender, you got me in the end.

Stunning, provocative and surprisingly emotive; Shame is a film which keeps its cards close to its chest and never truly lets you in as it has its way with you. Go and see it, just not with your nan.

5 Stars = Absolute Amazement.