By Louis Bayman
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BFI London Film Festival 2012: round up

This article is over 9 years, 2 months old
Frankenweenie, Great Expectations, Argo, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Midnight's Children, Ginger and Rosa, No, Amour, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, The Central Park Five, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, 7 Psychopaths, Sightseers.
Issue 374

Film festivals exist for two main reasons: to promote the cultural prominence of the cinematic arts and to push sales. Usually the two are bound up together and used as the reason to justify each other, although in any given festival the weighting will change. The London Film Festival is certainly aimed at the commercial end of things; but because of its dual role, and helped by how long it has been going and by its capital location, it angles itself principally in terms of prestige.

With this in mind, two adaptations – of sorts – of classic English literature formed the opening and closing gala extravaganzas. Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is a loose adaptation both of his own early work and of Frankenstein. It’s a charming stop motion animation about a reanimated pet dog, that maintains the director’s place as somewhere between Disney and Dali.

Meanwhile the festival closed with the latest version of Great Expectations (with Burton’s partner, the prominent Tory Helena Bonham Carter, in the role of Miss Havisham). It is banal to complain about adaptations not living up to the novel, but Dickens’s tale, at turns extremely funny, romantic, thrilling and satirical, has been pretty badly served by various film adaptations (the last decent one was made in 1946).

This one, I am relieved to say, works. If director Mike Newell and an excellent cast manage an extraordinary job of combining novelistic detail with multiple plot strands it is because, like the book, the film is held together by its sense of class injustice. Young Pip is plucked from his life as a blacksmith to make his way in London, where the gentleman’s club that introduces him to snobbery has more foppish toffs round the table than an average cabinet meeting.

Pip wanders through Dickensian London negotiating the machinations of a mysterious benefactor who has enabled his change of fortunes, the wealthy Miss Havisham who tortures him with the unfulfilled promise of her protégée Estella’s love, and the looming shadow of an escaped convict. Each strand of the story centres upon the caprice, the unfairness, the absurdity – in short the determining nature – of social position.

There were 300 films on show throughout the two weeks of the festival. While Ben Affleck continues his directorial career with Argo, which concerns a CIA agent in revolutionary Iran, Mira Nair provides an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Deepa Meta puts in a spirited version of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children. Ginger and Rosa provides more committed fare in its coming of age drama set in a 1960s London preoccupied with the Cold War and sexual liberation. Pablo Larrain puts Gael Garcia Bernal in a starring role in No, the final part of a trilogy set during the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner Amour, about an elderly couple trying to cope after the wife’s stroke, represents a move towards more personal filmmaking than his prior desire for controversy would have led one to expect.

Meanwhile everyone’s favourite contradictarian and celebrity academic Slavoj Zizek offers The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a typically provocative attempt at reading cinema as a reproduction of the workings of bourgeois thought.

Two discussions on racism provide the sharp edge of the documentary section: The Central Park Five deals with a 1989 rape for which the NYPD arrested five Harlem teenagers, but the film’s investigation centres on the workings of justice and American society. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners includes a fantastic array of footage and insightful interviews charting the life of the civil rights campaigner and Black Panther intellectual Angela Davis, her trial for kidnapping, her escape and arrest.

It is interesting that two British serial killer films should provide not only many of the laughs but a large portion of the festival’s insight. Martin MacDonagh’s 7 Psychopaths is a fitting follow-up to In Bruges, about a Hollywood writer who wants to write a script about seven psychopaths, and ends up in real life encountering, well, seven psychopaths. Like his last film the politics are dodgy, but it represents a consideration of movie making itself and the centrality of violence in respect to male inadequacy. Plus it ends standing up for a committed act of protest. And it is very funny.

Across the wet countryside of northern England in Sightseers, a caravan holiday for a new couple takes unexpected turns as the eccentric Midlands pair discover a mutual appetite for extreme violence.

The film is a rare moment in British cinema that really manages to capture Englishness, not only as drab pettiness and class-ridden lifestyle but as a historical pathology. The movie couldn’t be in greater contrast to the official celebrations of this particularly England-obsessed year. And it is also very funny.

The film festival used to group its films according to nation; it has changed this, presumably for commercial reasons, to genres like “Love”, “Thrill” and “Dare”.

While the names and motivations could be questioned, it is surely better to view cinema in terms of the emotional experience it offers than the national team it might be batting for; and for all the commercial considerations and heritage notions of prestige, the London Film Festival always restores faith in film to offer both a politicised and a highly enjoyable time.

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