Some Reflections on the BFI London Film Festival 2020

Report by Carlie Newman

A London Film Festival like no other. 2020 will be remembered for the vast amount of screenings that were on-line. This festival I saw almost 50 films.

An especially good festival, there were some terrific films.Too many films to cover all here. Some have now been released but others will come out before the end of this year and be reviewed in the main Close-Up Film Reviews section and others in 2021 and will be reviewed then.

Here are some of my top picks:

Mangrove

The prestigious gala, albeit online for me, was the Opening Night gala, MANGROVE, directed by the wonderful Steve McQueen. It tells the true story of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), whose West Indian restaurant, Mangrove, a lively community hub in London’s Notting Hill attracted locals, activists, intellectuals and artists. There was much racism, including from the police force. Crichlow found himself and his drug-free business – which worked successfully – the victim of constant police raids. Trying desperately to stop this discrimination, Frank and his friends set up a peaceful protest in 1970. But this was met by police aggression.  Nine men and women, including Frank and the leader of the British Black Panther Movement, Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright), and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), are wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot and affray. The ensuing trial attracted much publicity and eventually a win.

Francis Lee’s AMMONITE

The closing night gala was Francis Lee’s AMMONITE: telling a fictionalised account of an actual segment of the life of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. Directed by Francis Lee, the movie looks at the fossil collector, Mary (Kate Winslet) and weaves in a story about a visit from Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) and her geologist husband, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). When the ill Charlotte is left alone after her husband goes away on a trip, Mary nurses her and Charlotte joins Mary in collecting specimens on the beach in Lyme Regis. Gradually the two form a lesbian relationship. Set in Dorset, there is much energetic lust on show and Lee manages to get the feel not only of the area where Mary lives, but also the growing attraction and desire between the two women.

Other films deserving a view are:

One Night in Miami…

One Night in Miami…Four towering figures of fairly recent black history come together in a fictionalised account of a night spent in a hotel room in Miami. Beautifully directed by Regina King with powerful dialogue, we meet Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) with Muhammad Ali’s (Eli Goree) following Ali’s victory over heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in 1964. We also learn something about their personal stories and civil rights. The film is based on the stage play by Kemp Powers.

The Human Voice

The Human Voice is Pedro Almodovar’s latest film and his English language debut. The very short film shows a woman (Tilda Swinton), on the verge of suicide, waiting for her lover to telephone her. She becomes more and more distressed. Her isolation resonates with our present situation in the midst of a pandemic. A tremendous performance by Swinton highlights Almodovar’s themes of passion and heartbreak.

Honeymood

The Israeli film, Honeymood is unusual in that it shows a quarrel in the honeymoon suite of a just married couple. The wife accuses her new husband of still having feelings for his ex-girlfriend as she has just sent him a ring. The couple leave the hotel and separately and together travel around Jerusalem trying to discover what it all means. Witty and a different type of romcom.

The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief: Directed by Benjamin Ree, this extraordinary documentary tells how two paintings were stolen from a gallery by a thief. The thief, Karl Birtill, is caught and taken to court. The artist, Barbara Kysilkova, hears Karl say that he stole the paintings, “Because they were beautiful,” and asks him to sit for her. The thief and the artist develop an unusual close friendship and Barbara hears his sad story. He is also a drug addict and insists that he remembers nothing about what happened to the paintings after he stole them. The film won the LFF Best Documentary Award.

Herself

Herself is a charming film directed by Phillida Lloyd. Sandra (Clare Dane) is a battered wife, who, finding herself homeless, sets about building her own house. With a diverse set of friends, she gets on with the job. Many locals join in to help.

Farewell Amor

Almost like a documentary, Farewell Amor looks at an African immigrant family in New York. Walter hasn’t seen his wife and daughter since he left their homeland 17 years previously. He is disturbed to find her very religious and the couple find it hard to re-engage. The daughter says very little and doesn’t know her father at all. Walter has another lover in New York and finds it difficult to juggle the two women. While Sylvia, the daughter, wants to be a dancer, which her dad encourages, her mother informs everyone that Sylvia is to have a medical career. A fascinating story, sensitively told.

Shirley

Based on the real Shirley Jackson, the American author, Shirley is an imagined part of her life. It shows Shirley as a heavy drinker who feuds constantly with her husband. She forms a surprisingly close relationship with Rose, one half of a couple who come to stay. Good acting by Elizabeth Moss as Shirley and Odessa Young as Rose make this a fascinating watch.

Supernova

Directed with great sensitivity, Supernova, has beautiful performances by Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth. The two who have been in a long-term relationship, suddenly find themselves coping with Tuscan (Tucci)’s growing dementia. Sam (Firth) wants to take care of his love, but Tuscan wishes to stay in control of his own life. A very moving film and a superb love story.

A re-issued, restored silent film of 1929 The Cheaters is in black and white with a dramatic story-line and even more dramatic acting! Well worth a view.

Another Round

Another Round is a delightful film. Four friends who all teach in a secondary school and are kept going with alcohol, decide to up their intake of alcohol to better their lives. The bulk of the film is concerned with how they cope with being drunk virtually all the time and still taking their classes. Some amusing parts and other sections are more serious. Winner of the LFF Best Film Award.

After Love

I was very taken with After Love. It is good to see the excellent actress, Joanna Scanlon, being given a main part in a worthy film. At first Mary (Scanlon) is very unhappy when her husband suddenly dies. But as she goes through his things, she finds many references to someone called Genevieve in France and so she decides to cross the channel from Dover to Calais to find out all she can about his other woman. Her husband worked on the cross-channel ferry so was constantly between the two countries. When Mary finds Genevieve’s house, she prepares to talk to her, but before she can say anything, Genevieve takes her to be her new cleaner and Mary finds herself assuming a different identity. She is more disturbed when she finds that her husband, Ahmed, has fathered a son. Although dressed as a Muslim, Mary has, in fact, converted. The film has lots of very realistic touches and is a most interesting take on race, love and adultery.

Nomadland

One of my very favourite films in the LFF 2020 was Nomadland. The film shows how, after her husband dies, Fern (Frances McDormand) sets out in her old van . She works for Amazon and says, “I’m just houseless. Not homeless.” She is friendly with a fellow worker who lives in a RV. When her job finishes at Amazon, she can’t find another job in that area so leaves her small town and travels around the American Midwest, working as she goes. She meets lots of different people living out of their vans and hears their stories. Fern is often alone and has to cope with the hazards of being single and living in a vehicle which frequently needs repairs. There is a lot in the film about grief and loss. There are some good little character pieces and a towering performance by McDormand.

Lots of films to choose from. Many others besides my choice above. Most of these will have full reviews in Close-Up Film.com, so watch out for them!

Besides films, there were also a number of special events. One such was a webinar case study on the film AFTER LOVE (see above) with Aleem Khan talking about his debut feature as writer director. Another very worthwhile event online was Kwame Kwei-Armah speaking with Kemp Powers about TELLING BLACK STORIES ON SCREEN. And – my personal favourite – George Clooney in a screen talk: beautiful man with a gorgeous voice, talking mainly about his new film MIDNIGHT SKY…to come.

This was a very different London Film Festival, but it worked well. We can only hope that next year sees a full festival with lots of screenings in real cinemas.