It’s so rare that a comedy can last for over two and a half hours but still be funny. New film ‘Toni Erdmann’ by German director/writer Maren Ade achieves this by building in both a tender story of a father-daughter relationship and scenes which become increasingly surreal/bombastic as the story progresses. Big lumbering Winfried is a divorced retiree and notorious prankster amongst his friends and family. He often uses the corniest tricks like wearing goofy glasses, ratty wigs or crooked false teeth to elicit a weary chuckle from those around him. When his adult daughter Ines returns home for a brief visit, he sees how uptight she’s become. She constantly makes work calls, dresses conservatively and has little time for her father’s pranks. The emotional disconnect is palpable. When Ines goes back to Bucharest where she lives and works, Winfried follows her there. He inveigles his way into her private and work life using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann and pretending that he’s a quirky flatulent businessman/diplomat. A series of wildly funny, cringe-worthy and awkward scenes ensue as Ines tries to carry on despite his intrusions.

What is so charming and engaging about this set up are the fluctuations of power play which take place in this father-daughter relationship. Ines wants to be taken seriously and lives like how she believes an adult should. Her time is filled with trying to advance in her job by sucking up to clients, partying with friends/business contacts and belittling those who work beneath her. Toni arrives in her life like an agent of chaos showing how shallow and ridiculous her pursuits are. Equally, Ines tries to show her father how immature his behaviour is and attempts to prove what an adult she is by acting out sexually, taking drugs or playing the diva at a spa. These battles between family members who desperately try to prove something to each other feel very real and touching.

It’s impressive how this film keeps you on your toes uncertain where it’s going next. Many scenes have the feeling of being improvised because of the thoroughly convincing performance from the actors who really look mystified about what’s happening or how to react when something highly unusual happens. I was surprised to learn from the Q&A with two of the actors at the London Film Festival screening I went to that the film was completely scripted and heavily rehearsed! Winfried (played by actor Peter Simonischek) gets a bewildered look in his eyes at certain points and holds his body as if he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next: continue the joke or fess up and go home. Also Ines (played by Sandra Hüller) maintains such a serious composure when faced with disruption that when she finally cracks at some points it feels wholly shocking. But also the script was obviously tightly written to make it feel like the characters were making spontaneous decisions.

I can’t express how involved the entire audience was at the screening I attended. There was a lot of audible laughter, gasps and winces at the outrageous scenes which gradually unfolded including karaoke to a Whitney Houston song, lewd acts with petits fours, a big hairy costume and a non-sexual naked office bonding party. ‘Toni Erdmann’ manages to be both genuinely heart-warming and brilliantly funny. I’ll be shocked if this film doesn’t get a best foreign language nomination at next year’s Oscars and it may well win the award. If you get a chance to see this film, I highly recommend it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I always look forward to the London Film Festival as it’s a great chance to see upcoming movies which might not be released for some time (or not ever get a general release). However, because the London Literature Festival is happening during the same two week period it means I’m particularly busy with events booked every evening. Last night I had to leave a discussion with Margaret Atwood right before she finished a Q&A with the audience so I could make the start of ‘Moonlight’ but I’m so glad I didn’t miss this extraordinary film!

‘Moonlight’ is the second full-length film from director Barry Jenkins and it’s based on the play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s the story of a boy named Chiron told in three stages of his life (and his character is played by three different actors). Growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood, he’s frequently bullied and often fights with his single mother who is a crack addict. However, he finds mentors in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae) who care for the boy – not for any sinister reason but only because they see a vulnerable young man who needs help. Their refuge can’t protect him from the increasingly violent bullying he experiences growing into his teenage years. Eventually the abuse becomes so intolerable he reaches a boiling point and it turns him into someone very different from the introverted boy he once was.

It’s so rare to see a complex depiction of masculinity in films – particularly about African American men. ‘Moonlight’ skilfully portrays the way in which a man’s body changes as he grows, how emotions must often be suppressed or hidden in social groups and the struggle to understand and express his sexuality. It does this subtly through the expressions and gestures of the actors as the dialogue is often quite sparse. When Chiron does speak it’s more often about what’s left unsaid. There are a few particularly powerful moments when what he says is a true expression of what he feels. However, the words are difficult to form because he’s gone through such conflicted periods of emotional turmoil.

He’s given nicknames at different ages such as “Little” or “Black” and these labels ironically become appropriated as an integral part of his identity – both informing who he is and defining his place in the world. The film depicts the way men build muscles as armour. It shows how queer feelings are often first expressed only through circuitous routes and then can be wrapped in a vow of silence. It presents how agonizingly difficult it is to express love and forgiveness for a parent who has wronged her child so atrociously.

As complex and nuanced as the film treats the character of Chiron, it approaches the supporting characters with as much sensitivity and these actors give powerful performances. Though we don’t get their full stories we have a glancing awareness of their conflicts. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) battles addiction and inner demons. Teresa (Janelle Monae) shows a humour and strength to raise others out of their difficult circumstances. Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome as a teenager and Andre Holland as an adult) is conflicted between conforming to others’ expectations and asserting what he really wants. These characters portray a layered and dynamic community around Chiron.

Barry Jenkins, Trevante Rhodes, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali and singer Janelle Monae

Barry Jenkins, Trevante Rhodes, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, Mahershala Ali and singer Janelle Monae

I felt such a powerful connection to Chiron’s character even though his life and circumstances were so different from my own. There are some beautifully shot scenes where Chiron spends time at the beach looking out over the water. I think anyone can feel the familiarity of these moments gazing at the sea and seeing there the expanse of everything unexpressed within you. It was a special honour at the screening last night that so many of the cast and crew were there speaking so passionately about how deeply they believe in this film. ‘Moonlight’ gives a perspective that’s so needed in the world right now: a celebration of black bodies, queer desire and the buried emotions of men.

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This year’s London Film Festival finished yesterday. I usually try to see several films in the festival and this year I saw eight. Almost every film was really good. Some highlights were ‘Tangerine’ which is a hilariously wild journey across Los Angeles driven by a jealous transsexual prostitute and her aspiring singer friend, ‘Son of Saul’ which is a dramatic and devastating account of a Hungarian-Jewish Sonderkommando prisoner in Auschwitz who is charged with burning the dead, and ‘Office’ which is a 3D Hong Kong musical about office politics and corporate overspending that includes the most stunningly beautiful film set. I also saw director Todd Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and actresses Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett interviewed at BAFTA for the film ‘Carol.’ Everyone should go see this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” because it is one of the most beautiful and romantic films I’ve ever seen. The only disappointing film I saw was Terence Davies’ ‘Sunset Song’ which felt so artificial and tedious. However, one of my top highlights was a Greek film called ‘Chevalier.’

This film was directed and written by female filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, but is all about six men who spend approximately a week having a holiday on a yacht in the Aegean Sea. After the screening Tsangari told the audience she was initially inspired to make a film that involved men peeling each other’s skin off, but because this was too expensive she filmed the men as divers who at the beginning of the film emerge out of the water and peel each other’s wetsuits off. This brilliantly sets the tone of the movie as it is about the intense intimacy and competition between these male friends. Out of boredom and a friendly sense of rivalry, the men form a game to determine which of them is judged the best. The prize for the man who wins is to wear a victory Chevalier ring. However, their competitions are far from your standard games. Each man is judged on things such as how he sleeps, his heath based on blood tests, how fast he cleans, the size of his erection, how quickly he can build a flat-packed shelving unit or how well he lip syncs to a pop song. In the midst of these activities every man carries a notebook where he assiduously records the points being assigned to each man after performing some ridiculous activity.

Photo by Despina Spyrou

Photo by Despina Spyrou

The series of competitions these men engage with hilariously send up masculinity and the male ego. There is a warm-hearted camaraderie where the men will occasionally console each other when they fail at activities while simultaneously judging them. At the same time it tells a compelling story where the relationships between the men are gradually revealed over the course of the film. Meanwhile, there are periodic announcements made in the yacht informing the men of the day’s weather or what they will be having for desert that evening. This creates the effect where the boat itself seems to be regulating and judging them in addition to the crew who make bets about which man will win. This film is such a compelling way of gently making fun of the construct of masculinity that reminds me of Andrew McMillan’s recent poetry collection “Physical” and Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “What I Lived For.” ‘Chevalier’ is also a highly enjoyable and thoughtful film to watch. It was awarded the Best Film Award at this year's BFI London Film Festival.

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As if going to see a Ukrainian film that is in sign language isn’t enough of a challenge! As director Miroslav Slobshpitsky’s film ‘The Tribe’ starts there is a notice informing viewers that there will be no subtitles. When I read this I felt a sting of panic wondering what I’d let myself into for the next 130 minutes. Suddenly I was immersed in a world with no sound except the occasional noise of people walking, scuffling or breathing. All communication between the characters is through sign language – not even International Sign but Ukrainian Sign Language so most deaf viewers who go to see this film will only understand a small portion of what is being communicated as well. There are no inter-titles or captions of any kind to indicate place, time or plot. You can only watch the action so that, like most deaf people are made to feel in a society built around audible communication, you must constantly piece together what’s happening around you. Of course, this is an alienating experience but it’s also fascinating because it makes you more attuned to people’s actions and facial expressions. Moreover, the eerie silence adds a layer of tension beneath all the action – and there is a lot that happens in this gritty, thrilling drama. I was immediately hypnotised and riveted throughout the entire film. 

The story focuses on a teenage boy who arrives at a boarding school for the deaf. Arriving at a bus stop, we see him from a distance gesturing to a woman for directions and communicating that he can’t hear. Once he finds the school we’re cut off from the hearing world completely and immersed in an institution where people only sign. The boy is introduced to the school where class times are indicated by flashing lights rather than bells. There is little authority outside the classroom. During recreational time there are no adults present so that fights between the students are unmarshalled. The dorms seem to be organized haphazardly with teenagers grouping themselves into gangs. The boy is quickly drawn into one particular gang where he’s given the duty of working as a pimp to two girls who prostitute themselves at a local truck stop. The shocking ease with which the characters go through these actions indicates how they are routine for them. The money the boy earns from this job is immediately given to one of the girls to hire her for sex as well. What could be viewed as a voyeuristic scene where the pair awkwardly start to have sex, works movingly as an essential part of the plot where blunt lust slowly transforms into deeper passion through their actions. It’s a subtle shift where the boy becomes enamoured with the girl and is motivated only to be with her. However, the girl is ambivalent about her feelings towards him. Her feelings are complicated further by the discovery that she’s pregnant. She terminates the pregnancy by going to a back alley abortionist in a scene which is one of the most startling and traumatizing things I’ve ever seen. Although she continues to see the boy, she wants to continue on as normal working as a prostitute and joining in a larger plan where she is evidently going to get a passport and papers to be trafficked to Italy. When the boy goes against the gang to stop this there are serious consequences. The ending is horrifically surprising and haunting.

The film works on many levels. It’s a gritty drama that shows what people, especially young disadvantaged people, do under desperate and impoverished circumstances. Like “Lord of the Flies” they make a tribe unto themselves with its own savage laws. As the film is silent the intricacies of all conversations are lost on the viewer who can only get the general gist of what’s being communicated. This makes you think harder about what’s happening and the stark reality of the actions take a firmer hold on the viewer’s attention. All the actors in the film are amateurs cast from a general call-out made by the director to people in the Ukrainian deaf community. It’s impressive how natural the performances are and the degree of subtly of feeling some of the main cast display in such a high drama story. The film has won the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes and the First Feature Award at the London Film Festival. The director has orchestrated a story about challenging specific circumstances that have a larger message about humanity. Having dispensed with language completely to say something much more meaningful about the human condition, this is surely a drama that Beckett would have approved of.

‘The Tribe’ is an utterly compelling and original film that will stir strong reactions. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s unlike any other film and a thought-provoking rewarding experience.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Whatever you think about him, it’s admirable that director Frederick Wiseman has pursued his documentary craft with such a focused and stylistically-consistent vision for over forty-five years. Since moving to London in 2000, I’ve tried to see all of his documentaries that have been included in the London Film Festival (as he produces one almost every year). These have varied in subject matter from the emotionally brutal Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2 to the squalid Crazy Horse to the deeply personal (for me) Belfast, Maine. Wiseman explores particular institutions or locations from a variety of viewpoints including spaces such as administrative meetings, rehearsals, people at work or candid personal conversations. His entry in the festival this year explores another high art institution in a way similar to his 2009 film La danse which focused on the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s a location much closer to home for me as it’s his first film shot in England. National Gallery films many aspects of one of the UK’s largest and most well established art museums to produce a dynamic portrait of both the institution and a meditation on our relationship to fine art.

Over the course of this three hour documentary we see the daily functions of the museum from opening to closing to cleaning. Outside shots of the gallery capture the time period this takes place in with the countdown clock to the Olympics standing in Trafalgar Square. At times Wiseman focuses on guided talks where charismatic and informed men and women enthusiastically discuss with a small audience the importance, possible interpretations and relevance of different paintings from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors to works by Turner. One class at the museum gives a descriptive and tactile presentation of an art work to a group of blind or sight-impaired individuals. A female guide/installation artist informs a tour group of teenagers that we should remain mindful that the National Gallery and many other great British institutions were only made possible because of the financial benefits of slavery and colonial pursuits. Art classes that centre around a live model are led by a chirpy teacher who guides students in methods of representation. Not only do these scenes portray the way the gallery serves as an active learning space, but they focus on the expressions of intrigue, meditation or boredom from the crowds who are looking at the art which is shown in fragments. An old man relates a joke about the Ten Commandments after seeing Moses portrayed in one picture. At another time someone is shown slumped on a bench asleep. These moments capture our active relationship with or indifference to art.

Many other scenes show fascinating behind the scenes elements of the gallery. This includes the careful cleaning processes that go on after hours. Meetings are held between directors of the gallery and marketing teams about how the gallery should be represented, whether it should align itself with charities and considerations over budget cuts. Some of these arguments are essentially over whether the institution should remain an elitist pursuit for the well educated or reach out to encourage the larger community to take part in what the gallery has to offer. The documentary cleverly captures how people thoroughly entrenched in a particular point of view dance around each other in their speech and body language refusing to yield to points which are persistently made. Some of the most exciting scenes show the way restoration work is done to the art. In addition, there are discussions between historians and restoration workers about what the restoration process means. One scene reveals an x-ray of a painting behind a painting and how certain shapes and elements of the original were incorporated into the final visible painting. These accounts show the fascinating methods of conservation and contemplate how art should be preserved for the future.

Wiseman’s style of documentary making presents a (selected and edited) form of reality whereby we come to understand the workings of this institution as unobtrusively and transparently as possible. There is never any interaction with the director or camera crew. No names or job titles are shown on the screen to identify who we are watching. Through the speech and actions of the people captured he reveals the competing ideologies of those involved in the National Gallery. Certainly a lot gets left out. At one point, we see a banner about Shell oil being hung over the front of the gallery’s façade by protestors while people walk by shaking their heads. Another time a man mentions how an artwork in the gallery was once attacked with a can of paint by a protestor and how the restorers worked through the night to return it to the painting’s original condition. We see snippets of these differing points of view, but the film doesn’t fully portray their complexity. This isn’t necessarily a problem as I don’t think the director is trying for total objectivity. Rather, the film succeeds as a subtle meditation on our day to day relationship with art, who gets to see art and how art is managed. There is a beautiful closing scene where two ballet dancers perform around a gallery. This seems a fitting summary of the way the film contemplates how much we allow ourselves to open up to and participate in the meaning of art.

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It was exciting to see that director Carol Morley’s first fictional feature film was being included in this year’s BFI London Film Festival. I saw her documentary Dreams of a Life a couple years ago. I was struck, not only by the incredibly sombre tale of a woman who died in her bedsit and whose death wasn’t discovered until three years later, but also by the clever way the story was told. Through interviews with several people who knew the victim we hear competing tales about a life that was ultimately forgotten. No point of view dominates. The viewer is left with a fragmented picture of why this woman withdrew from life and why others drew away from her. In an age of social media where we’re all meant to be better connected it was a painful reminder of how people can be forgotten.

Morley’s new film The Falling seems entirely separate from this previous documentary, but I believe there are still some parallels between the two films. Set in a rural all-girl school in 1969 we follow the close friendship of Abbie (played by newcomer Florence Pugh) and Lydia (played by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones). Where Abbie is sexually assertive and has a vibrant (if slightly crazed) affability, Lydia is a virgin and has a more surly personality. They are contrasts between light and dark, yet find strength together as a pair. The film comes to focus solely on Lydia whose life abruptly changes one day. She grows increasingly ill, fainting for no reason that doctors can explain, but her sickness spreads to other girls at the school and even to a sensitive art teacher. The domineering headmistress of the school Miss Alvaro (played by Monica Dolan) looks down upon these incidents as a frustrating case of mass hysteria.

What really struck me about this coming of age tale is the sensitive way the camera focuses on the reactions of many girls at the school. When a disruption from the routine occurs like someone entering class late or a girl falling ill, the viewer can clearly see multiple reactions from the girls to this event. These subtle facial expressions are more telling than any dialogue or voice-over can give. Whenever I’ve been out in public and witness some out-of-the-ordinary occurrence like a person acting crazy on public transport what I like to focus on is the reactions of people around me. Through the unguarded looks of disgust or sorrow or fear from people watching you can read so much about someone’s character and thought process.

That’s what I believe connects this new film to Dreams of a Life. It’s in The Falling’s careful attention to the multiplicity of points of view that we come to understand the general social mood of the time and we see an event refracted through the consciousness of many people. Abbie is struggling to understand herself. Given the emotional repression of the school environment and her withdrawn agoraphobic mother, she’s unable to enter into any sort of dialogue to help her grow. In turn, Abbie grows tyrannical and lashes out. She attempts and partially succeeds in rousing an army of sympathy with the twitch of an eye. There is a strange collective psychology going on here where the anguish of one draws out the repressed anguish of all. It makes a powerful and moving story.

The Falling is also a very beautiful looking film with contemplative shots of the surrounding environment making a sharp contrast to the rigid school setting. It will be exciting to see what director Morley produces next. Interestingly, in a Q&A with the director after the screening she says she’s never seen the play The Crucible. But if you want to go for film comparisons think The Crucible meets My Girl meets Mermaids. But really, The Falling is strikingly original and cleverly portrays its difficult subject matter with clever direction and excellent performances. 

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It’s London Film Festival time and, since my boyfriend is a massive movie buff, that means for the next two weeks I’ll be seeing a film every night and sometimes as many as three films in a day. The first film I went to see last night was The Duke of Burgundy starring the imperial looking Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna (who was styled like the character Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks). I was interested in seeing this film as it was directed by Peter Strickland whose previous film was the bizarre and atmospheric Berberian Sound Studio. What’s so striking about this director is the way he uses sound and music to trigger the viewer’s imagination and cause submerged emotions to well up out of the darkness.

The Duke of Burgundy is set in a seemingly fantasy world on a rural palatial estate overloaded with dusty books and entomology specimens – illustrations of insects and cabinets filled with pinned moths and butterflies decorate the rooms. The scene opens with Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) arriving at the house and being swiftly told off by the woman who appears to be the mistress, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen). What is established as a strict and formal atmosphere is swiftly turned into something else altogether as the plot twists to show this pair has a very special sort of relationship. What on the surface appears to be a stark ordinary reality is revealed to contain falsehoods. For instance, during a lecture hall session about the characteristics of insects, a slow panning shot records the bland expressions of the attentive audience and reveals this group is partially made of dummies.

It took me a bit of time to get into the mood of this film. I have no doubt some people will find it controversial or might consider it to be just about titillation – although the type of people who go to see art house films like this probably won’t feel this way. At first, I thought it was all a bit of a gimmick and just revelling in being a tale about kinky lesbians. But gradually a subtle sort of humour is introduced and this brought a welcome dimension to the film. It also introduced a complication as I think it’s a little pat to have a story about a sub-dom relationship where it’s all revealed to be strained, a bit ridiculous and unsustainable over any extended length of time. Certainly this is the case in many kinky relationships, but I don’t think it makes a very interesting story line.  

What is interesting, where this film really excels and the thing that makes it a memorable experience is the way it artistically portrays the way desire, the sexual imagination and love function in relationships. It sounds harsh, but any romance is a kind of lie that the people involved are complicit in perpetuating. The truth is that nothing binds two people together no matter how fiercely they declare their love or bond themselves in public displays of matrimony. It’s all just words. And a few words like “I don’t love you anymore” or “I’m leaving you” can blow it all away. Yes, there are sincere emotions and chemistry which keeps people harmoniously together for many years and that’s a beautiful thing. But, beneath it all we remain solitary individuals trapped in our own heads and slaves to our own desires. It’s natural for love to waver over time.

The Duke of Burgundy portrays the way two people grapple towards a sustainable relationship making allowances for each other’s transforming needs. This is portrayed in subtle glances between Evelyn and Cynthia. They voicelessly yield to each other’s whims – sometimes grudgingly and sometimes indulgently. The play for power is the way they establish that one person still cares for the other – that they are willing to make sacrifices when needed and stymie the gluttony of the sexual imagination – or, in fact, pander to it. It’s about the way relationships are bound together through mutual respect and caring. It acknowledges the tension and the essential unknowingness of the other so that this vulnerability turns into a source of strength. Through long shots of seemingly placid expressions and bleakly-coloured sets the seriousness of these women’s exercises in lust is established. Imagery of fluttering moths or slow-moving insects shows the way desire inveigles itself into the texture of the couple’s relationship. The sound of heels clicking on wooden floorboards or the gasp of someone choking on fluid ricochets within the imagination of the characters and the viewer. It not only creates narrative tension but makes us aware of the tension in their relationship.

This is a fascinating, arresting film that left me pondering its meaning long after leaving the cinema. It’s like Jean Genet’s play The Maids crossed with Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Solstice.” It was a great way to start the film festival for me as it’s the kind of challenging movie which won’t make it into the mainstream.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Yesterday afternoon I went to see a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s new film ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ at the London Film Festival. This is a moody but humorous story centred around vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who have been lounging about the world – presumably since the dawn of creation. Rather than being portrayed as supreme beings they are shown to be down to earth individuals who continue to have lovers’ spats and exist in perpetual crisis of either being caught in the sunshine or not getting enough blood to subsist on. Eve resides in Tangiers reading through her favourite books and conversing with the writer Christopher Marlowe who is also a vampire. Frustrated artist Adam has a reclusive existence in Detroit making experimental music, moaning about how fed up he is with “zombies” and dodging a faithful legion of rocker fans. The two meet up after a long period of separation, have an unsettling encounter with Eve’s sister Ava and ponder the stumbling progression of the human race. Along the way there are a string of amusing literary references about writers Adam and Eve have known. Adam complains about what a horrible person Byron was and Marlowe pouts about Shakespeare taking credit for all the work which he produced after he became a vampire but couldn’t release under his own name because he was dead. The script is light-hearted and clever in a way that isn’t as pretentious as Woody Allen’s 'Midnight in Paris' which also playfully invokes a lot of literary characters from history.

The film is really made by excellent performances from Hiddleston, Swinton and John Hurt who plays Marlowe. Hiddleston plays Adam like a mopey teenager perpetually moaning about things, showing a geeky fascination with electronics and collecting rare instruments. Hiddleston is a very versatile actor who can transform himself into a wide range of characters. I saw another fascinating film called ‘Exhibition’ at the Festival on Saturday which features Hiddleston in a minor but funny role of an estate agent. With her other-worldly beauty Swinton is perfect playing the bookish vampire and first woman of creation Eve. She reads through novels scanning the pages in seconds in a way that made me incredibly jealous of how much reading she can get through. She speaks to animals that pass her by and mushrooms growing out of season. Although, she is intellectual and polite she is shown at the end to be someone who is also fearsome and terrifying. This is a really amusing film that’s well worth seeing.

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Last night at the London Film Festival, I went to see The Invisible Woman, the film adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s novel about Charles Dickens’ affair with 18 year old actress Nelly Ternan. I haven’t read Tomalin’s book and I was slightly hesitant about this movie. Was it going to be a sensational costume drama along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl? Or a vanity project for director and star Ralph Fiennes? All these fears I had were assuaged when the movie got underway and I discovered what a patient, sympathetic drama it was about a complicated love affair.

Dickens meets Nelly while in his prime as a writer. Heavily established with his wife (played by the incredibly sympathetic Joanna Scanlan) and several children he continues to produce praised serialized novels, gives popular lectures frequently and contributes to charitable events. Whenever he is recognized in public he’s treated as a celebrity surrounded by avid fans seeking to shake his hand. During a production of his friend Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep his eye is caught by actress Nelly. He increasingly seeks to spend time with Nelly alongside her two actress sisters and their mother played by the talented Kristin Scott Thomas. Thomas’ character understands that Dickens is interested in her daughter even though he makes no overt flirtation with her and takes a cautious approach to this potential affair. Nelly is a shy, intelligent girl who is a great fan of Dickens’ writing and is equally cautious towards Dickens’ evident affection for her. Felicity Jones does an amazing job playing Nelly in a way that is guarded, but full of passion. When Dickens finally decides to break from his wife Catherine the split acts like a seismic shift in the lives of Dickens, his wife and Nelly. He’s unable to marry Nelly and therefore she can’t be formally recognized as his partner. Even when the couple are travelling together on a train which crashes he can’t admit that he knows her and must treat Nelly like a stranger. Some years in the future when the two have separated, Nelly lives a beleaguered existence having remarried and given birth to a new family but she’s unable to escape the haunting memory of her affair with a powerful literary genius.

What’s most effective about this movie is the balanced and sympathetic attention it gives to all the characters involved. Charles and Catherine have grown apart and are shown to be somewhat trapped in their established lifestyle. Catherine seems to know she can’t hope to hold onto the affections of her incredibly active and busy husband. While Dickens could be condemned as despicable for turning his back on his longstanding wife (and the way he goes about breaking up with her and declaring his favour for Nelly is atrocious) it’s not understandable that his affections have transformed. Fiennes plays Dickens as someone who cares about people deeply, but someone who is also attached to his public persona. As Catherine remarks in an amazing scene between her and Nelly, Dickens affections will always be torn between the woman he loves and the public. Love is difficult. There is always a conflict between ego and giving yourself fully to the person you love. The true passion we feel for those we love is often sublimated and inexpressible. Through the subtle performances of Fiennes, Jones and Scanlan we see the quiet introspective moments of these three people’s lives and how their desire was largely swallowed due the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s a powerful, haunting film.

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Last night at the BFI London Film Festival I saw Violette, the new movie from Martin Provost that explores the life of groundbreaking feminist writer Violette Leduc. Played with passion and charm by actress Emmanuelle Devos, the film is structured in chapters. Each one explores her relationship with various people and how they helped her on her way to discovering her writer’s voice. Moving on from trading on the black market and pining for the love of a gay man, she starts writing as an outlet for all her energy and emotion. She introduces herself to Simone de Beauvoir by thrusting a book she’s written in her hands and Beauvoir responds encouragingly to Leduc’s brutally honest female perspective and poetic talent. Acting as mentor to Leduc, Beauvoir introduces her to a publisher as well as influential writers and artists of the time like Jean Genet. It’s a fascinating look at an intellectual relationship which transforms slowly over the time with Leduc falling passionately in love with Beauvoir – which is unrequited. Gradually they develop a mutual respect for each other and have a guarded companionship based on a shared desire to progress feminist ideas. Leduc is portrayed so sympathetically as someone pining desperately for love and validation. It’s admirable that Beauvoir didn’t just dismiss these turbulent emotions, but helped direct Leduc into pouring her passion into writing. Actress Sandrine Kiberlain beautifully plays Beauvoir as a woman with austere grace and intelligent determination.

Martin Provost’s equally brilliant previous film Seraphine also focused on the life of a marginal visionary artist who is not now as well known as she was at one time. Both films are excellent and well worth seeking out. I only briefly remember Violette Leduc being referenced from reading I’ve done in the past, but I’d now love to seek out translations of her work and explore this fascinating original voice.