Tag Archives: BFI

‘Ad Astra’ director James Gray’s American masterpiece… and why UK audiences never saw it

Until going up the jungle in The Lost City of Z (2016) and now into deep space with Ad Astra, the films of American director James Gray – from Little Odessa (1994) to Two Lovers (2008) – all told stories of New York, with many focusing on immigrant families. His 2013 ode to classical melodrama, The Immigrant, was the culmination of that interest.

Set in 1921, it sees Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) tricked into a life of Manhattan burlesque and prostitution as she tries to fund the release of her ill sister, who has been confined to Ellis Island. She also finds herself caught in a toxic love triangle between Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the charmer pimp who got her there, and his chivalrous magician cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner).

Featuring contenders for Cotillard and Renner’s career-best performances, reliably magnetic work from Phoenix, and cinematography from Darius Khondji that simultaneously evokes 19th-century painting, silent cinema and the 70s highpoints of Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis, The Immigrant is a beautiful and devastating slow-burn drama. Its closing act, particularly the lingering final shot, must count among the finest American filmmaking of this decade.

So, why was the film never released in the UK?

Full feature for the BFI

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Between London, Lagos and Lincolnshire: Shola Amoo on ‘The Last Tree’

British writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature, The Last Tree, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film set in the early 2000s. It centres on a young boy named Femi of Nigerian descent who’s being fostered by a white parent, Mary (Denise Black), in Lincolnshire. As Amoo explains: “The story starts when his biological mum (Gbemisola Ikumelo) picks him up, takes him to south London to live with her, and we follow his trials and tribulations as he tries to find his identity within a new culture in a multicultural London.”

“There are elements of the film taken from my life,” Amoo says of his connection to the narrative, which charts the journey of Femi into his teens. “The rest is amalgamated with other experiences I’ve heard around foster care, and friends who’ve dealt with this idea of double-consciousness: being of one community and living within another. It’s all woven together.” That sense of struggling with the values and culture of an unfamiliar community also extends to Femi’s experiences of visiting Lagos, where his biological father lives…

Full interview for the BFI

A Girl Missing (Kôji Fukada, 2019)

In Fukada Kōji’s Harmonium (2016), Tsutsui Mariko played a woman whose life was destroyed by tragic circumstances beyond her control. In this reunion of the actor and writer-director, Tsutsui is working in a similar mode, including playing someone before and after a significant time jump. Here, those timelines are presented in parallel, tracking, to largely deft effect, a transformation from a compassionate, pragmatic individual to a vengeful soul who’s lost everything…

Full review for Sight & Sound

Sophie Hyde on ‘Animals’: ‘We don’t just come of age once and then we’re adults forever. We keep coming of age.’

As Animals begins, hard-partying Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) have been tearing up the streets of Dublin for 10 years. But 32-year-old Laura finds herself at a crossroads where changing her manner of living sounds pretty tempting: she wants to finally write more of the novel she’s barely progressed with over several years; her tamed wild child sister’s pregnancy has her freaking out; and she strikes up a romance with Jim (Fra Fee), a classical pianist with an increasingly teetotal way of life. Tyler, meanwhile, who’s perfectly content with the single lifestyle and continued debauchery, finds herself at odds with the attempts at growth of the one person to whom she is attached…

Full interview for the 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

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