I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. Today, it’s a glossy political biopic and a strange, melancholy romance…
The Front Runner
Imagine, for one second, that we live in a world in which a presidential candidate can be brought down by rumours of an extra-marital affair. Given the fact that the current POTUS is a self-confessed practitioner of sexual assault, there’s something rather quaint about The Front Runner, in which director Jason Reitman tells the story of the tabloid scandal that engulfed Democrat rising star Gary Hart in the run-up to the 1988 election. Hart is portrayed by a righteous, believable Hugh Jackman, with Sara Paxton as Donna Rice – the woman with whom he was accused of having an affair.
This is a handsome and engaging period drama, enlivened by its pace and energy. It opens with on-screen text declaring that “a lot can happen in three weeks” and when campaign boss JK Simmons describes Hart as being good at “disentangling the bullshit of politics”, it comes with a dollop of dramatic irony. The subsequent movie details politics being taken over by journalism at its most crude, tumbling down a rabbit hole for which no one is prepared. An excellent Alfred Molina, taking over from Tom Hanks in The Post as newspaperman Ben Bradlee, perfectly encapsulates this with his take on a classy editor forced to keep up with the Joneses by indulging in gossip.
Jackman’s central performance is classy and impressive, but it’s the supporting characters who really make an impact. Many of the film’s best moments involve the relationship between Paxton’s Donna and Molly Ephraim as one of Hart’s campaign organisers. It’s not a movie I expected to see pass the Bechdel Test, but it manages to do so. With that said, Vera Farmiga is entirely wasted as Hart’s wife and Reitman soft-pedals on actually criticising Hart for his infidelity, painting him instead as a man fighting off a hostile media, with the rise and fall of flashbulbs and journalistic babble often serving as an ersatz score in certain scenes.
Reitman’s movie is a slick piece of work, making the most of its fairly tight couple of weeks to maintain the pressure cooker environment of a public scandal. Hart, as played by the intensely charismatic Jackman, is a compelling character, fighting with idealism for the way he thinks politics ought to be, rather than the way it is. Its release now is interesting and relevant, but it’s a little too soft on Hart to pack a punch and emerges as lightweight, enjoyable fluff.
(Dir: Jason Reitman, 105 mins, UK Release: January 25, 2019)
I know there’s a certain breed of arthouse fan for whom Mia Hansen-Løve is an untouchable genius. The only film of hers I’ve previously seen, Goodbye First Love, was a pretentious disappointment and so it was without much in the way of expectations that I went to see Maya. It’s a film that traces the gentle growth of a burgeoning relationship between French war reporter Gabriel (Roman Kolinka) and the titular Indian girl (big screen debutant Aarshi Banerjee), who is the daughter of Gabriel’s godfather.
The film opens as an entirely different beast, with Gabriel and his friend welcomed back to France as minor celebrities having been held hostage for four months by terrorists in Syria. Unmoved by those advising him to stay put, he yearns to get back into the field, declaring that he will “go where I’m useful” after returning to India to tour the country and reconnect with his estranged mother in Mumbai. Kolinka, bearing a slightly distracting resemblance to Oscar Isaac, is an interesting presence as he broods and wanders, just engaging enough to hold the film in place.
When he first meets Maya, there’s a spark of connection that feels entirely platonic and it’s in the development of this initial frisson that Hansen-Løve pulls off an impressive feat. In the real world, love is seldom something that happens instantly, and the same is true throughout Maya. Banerjee’s impressively naturalistic work contrasts with Kolinka’s more mannered performance, but the growing romantic link is one that never feels at all forced. It’s a film with a real, gentle charm and, although the English language dialogue is clearly not Hansen-Løve’s strong suit, there’s more than enough here to make the romance work.
(Dir: Mia Hansen-Løve, 107 mins, UK Release: n/a)
Are you excited to see these movies? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you keep coming back for the next few weeks for reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.