Category Archives: BFI

The bitter and the sweet: British features at Edinburgh 2019

2019 marked my seventh trip to the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Something I’ve always appreciated about its commitment to new British cinema – and not just through its Michael Powell Award competition – is that it provides a platform for more idiosyncratic examples of independent British cinema that may struggle to get a launch at the grander London Film Festival. And while it’s faced competition from the rising Glasgow Film Festival for specifically Scotland-focused fiction and nonfiction, Edinburgh has always launched interesting fare from across the increasingly divided United Kingdom – from Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) to Matt Palmer’s Calibre (2018), to name but two recent personal favourites.

That said, not every year can be a vintage one when you take a chance on lots of relatively unproven talent, and my experience of this year’s British line-up was that while the pick-ups from overseas A-list festivals were mostly solid to very good (the Toronto-premiering British folk horror Gwen, now opening in UK cinemas, stood tall), the festival’s own finds were underwhelming so far as the fiction films went…

Full feature for Sight & Sound

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William McGregor on the ‘slow burn, anti-capitalist folk horror’ of ‘Gwen’

No one’s having an especially good time in Gwen, a gothic tale with a rural focus where the most tender moment involves someone applying blood to their cheeks as blusher.

In mid-19th century Snowdonia, north Wales, a young girl, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), tries to hold her home together. Her father’s failure to return from war has her and her little sister, Mari (Jodie Innes), concerned. Her stern mother (Maxine Peake) has developed a strange illness, the farm’s crops are rotting, their closest neighbours have mysteriously died, and a ruthless mining company is looking to seize their land.

Gwen is the debut feature of William McGregor, a writer-director with various prize-winning shorts and acclaimed TV runs to his name, including Poldark (2015-). His breakthrough effort, co-financed by the BFI, is a tricky film to define, but he has a very specific way of describing it for prospective viewers. “A slow burn, anti-capitalist folk horror would be the best description,” he says. “You have to add that caveat because if you tell people it’s only folk horror, they might go in with slightly different expectations”…

Full interview for the BFI

10 to see at the 2019 Edinburgh International Film Festival

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s longest continuously-running film festival and now in its 73rd year, runs between 19 and 30 June. It opens with the European premiere of Boyz in the Wood (2019), which is not a tribute to the late John Singleton but rather a dark, folk horror-influenced comedy set in the Scottish Highlands, from writer-director Ninian Doff. The world premiere of Mrs. Lowry & Son (2019) closes the festival: Adrian Noble’s light-hearted biopic of L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) portrays the painter long before he was established as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, devoted to but frustrated with his bitter mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).

Beyond the bookend galas, there are many premieres (including world-first screenings of 18 features), discoveries and retrospectives of note. Here are 10 highlights from the packed programme…

Full feature for the BFI

‘Dirty God’: “I saw a young burn survivor at a music festival and I flinched. I saw everybody around her doing the same.”

The English-language debut of Dutch director Sacha Polak, Dirty God follows a young London mother, Jade (newcomer Vicky Knight), as she tries to reassemble her life after an acid attack leads to disfigurement and burns across her face and upper body – the unprovoked assault coming courtesy of her ex-boyfriend and father of her child. The injuries change the ways in which many people interact with her, altering her sense of self, driving her to pursue cheap plastic surgery in Morocco and fracturing her relationships with her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly), and infant daughter.

With co-writer Susie Farrell, Polak eschews common on-screen treatments of burn survivors, avoiding making Jade an object of pity and passivity but also not placing her on a pedestal. She is a complicated, well-rounded character who makes impulsive, sometimes disastrous decisions. Dirty God is a complex story of survival, not victimhood. Her trauma is not easy to boil down: there’s relatively little soul-searching or self-pity, and she has recurring sex dreams about her attacker…

Full interview for the BFI

“That summer we were all waiting for democracy to start”: Dominga Sotomayor on ‘Too Late to Die Young’

Too Late to Die Young is Chilean writer-director Dominga Sotomayor’s third feature, though the first since her well-regarded debut, Thursday til Sunday (2012), to receive much international distribution. The new work feels of a piece with the breakthrough film in its focus on the perspective of children and their burgeoning awareness of the complexities of their family situations. At the same time, that focus in the new effort is more expansive, with the juggling of a larger ensemble of both young and adult characters, and more ambitious in its evocation of a specific period and a unique setting rooted in Sotomayor’s own upbringing.

Set in Chile in summer 1990, in the run-up to New Year’s Eve, the film follows teenagers Sofía (Demian Hernández) and Lucas (Antar Machado) and ten-year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) facing various disappointments while living in a partially built ecological settlement in the mountains just off from Santiago. Lucas pines for Sofía; Sofía is drawn to an older man and also longs to move away from the commune to live with her estranged mother; and Clara searches for her missing dog. There is relatively little narrative incident, with Sotomayor favouring a shaggy hangout vibe above a story prone to any concrete definitions. The film’s political underpinnings – it’s set just after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship – are unobtrusive, relegated to the briefest of period signifiers and occasional dialogue allusions.

I spoke to Sotomayor at the Locarno Festival in 2018, where she became the first woman ever to win the Leopard award for Best Direction…

Full interview for Sight & Sound

‘Beats’: Brian Welsh on his 90s rave scene banger

Set in Scotland in 1994, Beats follows two teenage best friends, Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), heading out for one final night together at an illegal rave before life takes them in different directions. Johnno’s family, encouraged by his de facto stepfather Robert (Brian Ferguson), are due to move to a newly built house in the distant suburbs. Spanner’s prospects, meanwhile, look next to zero in the context of local poverty and his relationship with his abusive criminal brother, Fido (Neil Leiper).

Directed and co-written by Brian Welsh, Beats is adapted from Kieran Hurley’s acclaimed one-man stage show, which presented converging stories in the wake of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’s impact on rave culture. Section 63 of that act gave law enforcement the power to stop any gatherings of more than 20 people in open air settings when listening to music, “Wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.”

There’s an end of an era quality to the film’s portrayal of the 90s scene, and while raving didn’t disappear after 1994, the rest of the decade saw a form of it move into the more corporate club scene, heavy on brand image, where the experience, as influenced by those changes in the law, became more homogenised…

Full interview for the BFI

‘Cyrano’ meets ‘Harry Potter’: Toby MacDonald and Pauline Etienne on ‘Old Boys’

Loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s classic 19th-century play Cyrano de Bergerac, Toby MacDonald’s debut feature, Old Boys, transplants key elements of that story to a British boarding school in the late 1980s, albeit with some of the more tragic parts – the war and the bloodshed for starters – excised in favour of a more comedic update…

Full interview for the BFI