LFF 2018 – If Beale Street Could Talk, Only You, Benjamin

I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. My latest reviews include Barry Jenkins’s hotly anticipated follow-up to Moonlight and two British world premieres…

KiKi Layne and Stephan James in Barry Jenkins's If Beale Street Could Talk
KiKi Layne and Stephan James in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins immediately made himself one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors with Moonlight. The emotionally potent triptych of stories about the difficulties of being black and gay was almost universally acclaimed and (eventually) was handed the Oscar for Best Picture. A few years later, he’s back with another tender, poetic portrait of black life in America. If Beale Street Could Talk, adapted from James Baldwin’s novel of the same name and set in 1970s New York City, is one of the most beautiful movies of the festival.

KiKi Layne is absolutely luminous as Tish, who has recently discovered she is pregnant. Her boyfriend Alonzo (Stephan James), known to everyone as Fonny, has been locked up after being accused of a rape that Tish knows it would’ve been impossible for him to commit, thanks to sworn testimony from a slippery cop (Ed Skrein). The pregnancy bombshell sends shockwaves through both families and kickstarts a campaign to clear Fonny’s name while also preparing for the arrival of a young child into the tough, troubled world of working class Harlem.

All of the dreamlike beauty that Jenkins brought to Moonlight is present and correct in this follow-up, which is about racial tensions and discrimination, but never allows that to become more of a focus than the characters through whose eyes we are experiencing the story. Layne, especially, is in almost every scene and makes an enormous impact as a woman dealing with the fact that every strand of her family seems to be fraying simultaneously, just as her own body is beginning to assault her from the inside. It’s fundamentally her movie and it’s her voiceover narration that propels the film’s elliptical narrative through its shifts in time, allowing the audience into the couple’s courtship and relationship, as well as their current plight.

The score by Nicholas Britell is melancholic and beautiful, aiding the patient storytelling and dreamlike tone. The movement through time is managed elegantly and coherently, serving to underscore the developments of the narrative rather than muddying the waters. A lengthy series of scenes involving Brian Tyree Henry as a friend from Fonny’s past could easily have felt like a needless digression, but the dialogue between the two men packs in so much meaning and commentary that it’s impossible not to see the power and the relevance of these moments.

This is a movie that benefits hugely from its eclectic supporting cast, with Regina King a particular standout as Tish’s mother, who travels far and wide in an attempt to secure the evidence that could free her future son-in-law. King’s fierce matriarch is never anything other than terrific and benefits from much of the film’s snappiest dialogue exchanges. There’s also a very impressive roster of cameos, including Dave Franco as a rare example of a white person who treats the couple with the dignity they deserve and Pedro Pascal as a slightly sleazy Puerto Rican with information the family needs.

Jenkins has made a movie that is clearly about the black experience but, more simply, is about a relationship first and foremost. It perhaps lacks the flair and raw power of Moonlight, but If Beale Street Could Talk is a gentler film by design. It does have an anger pulsating beneath its surface, but that surface is awash with love, affection and delightfully crafted period detail. Don’t expect Jenkins to be taking to the Oscars stage again, but do expect to leave his latest movie with more than one tear in your eye.

(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 119 mins, UK Release: February 8, 2019)

Josh O'Connor and Laia Costa have terrific chemistry in Only You
Josh O’Connor and Laia Costa have terrific chemistry in Only You

Only You

The breakout performances of Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor could scarcely have been more different. O’Connor took the lead in the narratively simple, but emotionally complex British romance God’s Own Country, while Costa made her name as the title character in the incredibly intricate 140-minute single take European thriller Victoria. Their orbits have now crossed for the delightful romance Only You – a movie that perhaps flirts too readily with cliché, but absolutely has charm to spare.

Costa is 35-year-old singleton Elena, watching her life pass by as her friends all get married and have children. Leaving a New Year’s Eve party alone, she has a taxi-based meet-cute with marine biology student and part-time DJ Jake (O’Connor), who is around a decade younger than her. They’re soon bonding over her father’s record collection and, after an amorous night together, they embark on a relationship that moves exceptionally quickly to the point that they’re soon living together and trying for a baby.

Writer-director Harry Wootliff doesn’t stretch too many narrative muscles in her debut film, instead delivering a basic story and allowing the lightning in a bottle chemistry between the two leads to keep her movie on the right track. The leads have a palpable spark between them that ensures the film works, even in the face of a ludicrously fast-paced relationship and some slightly too syrupy plot moments. Costa is excellent as a woman struggling to see what defines her as a single, childless woman in her thirties, while O’Connor brilliantly sells his character’s swift transformation from party boy to responsible parent-to-be.

This isn’t a particularly bold movie, nor one that takes many risks, but it is a compelling and elegantly made film that benefits from terrifically realised lead characters. It explores with an admiral frankness issues that many films avoid and, although it rather outstays its welcome with a two-hour running time, it’s never lacking in emotional depth or enjoyable character interaction.

(Dir: Harry Wootliff, 119 mins, UK Release: n/a)

Simon Amstell delivers bittersweet comedy in his new film Benjamin
Simon Amstell delivers bittersweet comedy in his new film Benjamin

Benjamin

How much you will like Benjamin depends a lot on your stomach for wry, self-referential humour and creative nihilism. If those things are right up your street, then it’s tough to see how you can dislike Simon Amstell‘s latest. Colin Morgan is the Amstell surrogate – a socially awkward filmmaker whose latest movie is premiering – where else? – at the London Film Festival. It has been over five years since he last made a movie and his name is fading from the memory of the film world. At the same time as his new film hits screens, he meets French musician Noah (Phénix Brossard) and he must balance romance with his creative commitments.

Benjamin is a very smart film, characterised by Amstell’s trademark witty self-deprecation and movie industry touches that will delight fans with an investment in the world – Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s excellent cameo got a raucous reaction in the LFF press screening. Morgan, too, is very good in the lead role, which is a pleasant surprise after he stood out for all of the wrong reasons in this year’s The Happy Prince. His twitchy, doomy filmmaker is an enjoyable analogue for the inherent low self esteem of many creative people, also communicated through Joel Fry‘s heart-breaking performance as a not-very-good stand-up comedian, slowly torn down by his failure to break through.

This sly satire is enough to keep the movie’s first half going at a reasonable pace and with a number of standout scenes – watch out for the delightfully pretentious launch of a new chair – that skewer the ridiculousness of London at its most ludicrously trendy. However, once the focus shifts away from the industry and further into the heart of Morgan’s character, some of the enjoyment fades away. The character feels more like a cipher, representing an idea more than a person, and so the film suffers when it begins to hang on him rather than the artistic milieu in which he exists.

With that said, fans of Amstell’s work and anyone with an interest in the inner workings of independent cinema will get a kick out of Benjamin and it’s a very sharply written take on a world that’s ripe to be brutally and cleverly skewered.

(Dir: Simon Amstell, 85 mins, UK Release: n/a)

BFI London Film Festival 2018
BFI London Film Festival 2018

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.

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