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 cover a Netflix-bound historical epic, a beguiling giallo homage and a tribal gangster tale…
There have been two major news stories about the lavish historical epic Outlaw King since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. The first is that Chris Pine gets his wang out – which he does – and the second is that Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie has cut 20 minutes from the movie since that premiere – which he has done. The resulting film remains a big, bloody take on the period of history immediately after Mel Gibson had his entrails pulled out at the end of Braveheart. William Wallace indeed does appear in the form of a dismembered arm and a head on a spike in the first act.
This time around, the protagonist is Robert the Bruce, as played by a convincingly-brogued Pine. Along with almost all of Scotland’s noblemen, he has pledged his loyalty to King Edward I of England and has been given the hand of well-connected English girl Elizabeth (Florence Pugh). He witnesses a shocking attack on Scottish people by English forces and decides he must break his vow in order to liberate his nation from the occupying forces. With right-hand man Angus (Tony Curran), he wages war against Edward (Stephen Dillane) and his pathetic powder keg son (Billy Howle).
Pine’s performance is rock solid, giving the film the vital anchor it needs to hold its swords and scenery in place. The ever-reliable Pugh manages to explode like a stick of dynamite with little screen time as Elizabeth, while Howle is a revelation as a young man made exceptionally dangerous by his status as a pathetic weakling attempting to appear strong in front of his father. It’s a terrifying, angry performance of barely supressed insecurity in which Howle is almost unrecognisable from his more mannered work in On Chesil Beach and The Seagull. Edward himself, played by Game of Thrones‘s Stannis Baratheon, declares that he is “so sick of Scotland” and seems like a man thoroughly relieved at victory and crushed when it is taken away from him.
Mackenzie really flexes his visual muscles, too, for a movie that is seldom content to depict two people talking politics or military strategy in a room. Instead, he plays with light, darkness and shadows to create poetic shots, including a late night ambush on a campfire-lit forest and a climactic battlefield scene in which blood, dirt and sunlight mingle oddly beautifully in the air. If Hell or High Water showed Mackenzie as a master of dialogue scenes and subtext, Outlaw King proves him to be adept at spectacle as well.
There’s something deeply impressive about a straight historical epic working as well in 2018 as this one does. It’s not necessarily pushing the boundaries of the genre in any meaningful way or being especially original – there’s at least one rather too obvious Braveheart nod – but it is a very well-executed example of just how well these stories can play when helped along by strong performances and a director at the top of his game.
(Dir: David Mackenzie, 132 mins [original time from festival brochure], UK Release: November 9)
The last time I was at LFF, back in 2014, one of my biggest disappointments was Peter Strickland‘s strange BDSM drama The Duke of Burgundy, which left me very cold indeed. He has returned to LFF at the same time as me with his new movie In Fabric and I am delighted to say that, this time around, I bought into everything he was doing. It’s a giallo-inflected nightmare of manners and mystery that comes across as if Dario Argento and Yorgos Lanthimos were somehow able to engineer a misshapen, but beautiful devil spawn. From the moment Cavern of Anti-Matter’s Goblin-inspired score played over the distinctly giallo opening credits, I was pretty much sold.
The film is split into two halves, linked by a luxurious and almost certainly cursed dress, described in its catalogue as being “artery red” in colour. In the first half, bank teller Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys the gown from the decidedly off-kilter shop assistant Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), whose sentence syntax is even more out of place than her accent. If she’s pure Argento enigma, then Sheila’s overly polite gay bosses (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) provide the Lanthimos deadpan part of the equation, advising her to make her handshake more “meaningful” and constantly offering opportunities for corporate roleplay. Soon, the dress and its mysterious power is in the hands of washing machine repair man Reg (Leo Bill) for his stag night, and is then worn by his wife-to-be Babs (Hayley Squires, who also appeared earlier in the festival as part of the Happy New Year, Colin Burstead ensemble).
It’s tough to pin down the exact nature of the message at play here, but Strickland frames capitalism and the desire to consume as an act of mass hypnotism, casting the central department store and its permanently running sale as an act of mass seduction carried out by Satanic TV ads that seem to recall Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Everything exists to knock the audience off their feet, from Mohamed’s bizarrely crafted dialogue to frequent flights of devilish fantasy and the fact the characters seem to live in a place called “Thames-Valley-On-Thames”, complete with preposterous local newspaper.
Strickland casts a bizarre, beguiling spell with this movie and refuses to offer the audience even half of the answers they want. This makes the allegory slightly harder to pin down than it ought to be, but in a film that takes great joy in framing characters via reflections and overlaid shots, it’s perhaps wrong to want everything spelled out clearly. There are a tonne of really well-observed visual tricks – the inherent danger and tension of trying to hack away at a butternut squash and a chilling evocation of the body dysmorphia of any thin person who thinks they’re fat – but it’s also a film that revels in its idiosyncratic dark comedy.
In Fabric is a film clearly made by someone working entirely on their own terms and within a sandbox they have created. Strickland, undoubtedly with the help of executive producer Ben Wheatley, has created a world and a story that is dreamlike, atmospheric and utterly unforgettable. There’s allegory lurking beneath the surface for those willing to pry – and it certainly gets more subtext from dressmaking than Phantom Thread – but the blackly comic giallo homage on the surface is just as much fun.
(Dir: Peter Strickland, 118 mins, UK Release: n/a)
Birds of Passage
There are tonnes of crime dramas set in the world of narcotics, but few are anything like Birds of Passage. Helmed by Colombian duo Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, it traces the cartels and the drug war back to the source, with a tale set around the Wayuu tribe in the 1960s. It’s a visually vibrant, but narratively forgettable, tale that is a little too woozy and dreamlike to ever make much of an impact.
The title refers to a number of different elements of the movie, including the drug smugglers themselves, but it’s most evocatively brought to life in the traditional ‘Yonna’ dance performed by Zaida (Natalia Reyes) and suitor Rapayet (José Acosta) at a ceremony to mark her coming of age. Zaida’s family, including formidable matriarch Úrsula (Carmina Martinez), demand a hefty dowry that Rapayet is only able to provide once he discovers that he can sell marijuana to American visitors. In the years that follow, the family becomes vastly wealthy as a result of the drug trade, living in an incongruous white house in the middle of the unspoiled, beautiful desert.
Gallego and Guerra conjure memorable images throughout their movie, including a group of women with faces covered crying at a graveside and the aforementioned ritualistic dance, but the plot is a little too basic to support a movie that runs to two hours. The performances are solid, with Martinez a particular highlight as the ruthless, protective mother figure of the family, but the decision to shelve thrills in favour of lots of shots of presumably symbolic birds is not a good one. There’s some material in there about the tension of tradition versus modernity, but it never really bubbles to the surface.
(Dir: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, 120 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.