Although it might initially appear to be yet another unremarkable tale of disillusioned youths and gang violence, Peter Mullan's portrait of Glasgow's 'Non Educated Delinquents' is distinguished by Mullan's typically forthright direction and some interesting storytelling decisions. Mullan's protagonist is John McGill (impressive newcomer Conor McCarron) a youngster who dreams of escaping his troubled background through education, but who gradually finds himself being sucked back into the violent world inhabited by his older brother. Mullan makes some interesting points about class prejudice and the failings of the education system letting John down; he is humiliated in school when his intelligence and desire to learn is perceived as a superiority complex, and he is treated with barely concealed disdain by the snobbish mother of a classmate. As a filmmaker, Mullan can be blunt and unsubtle, but he can also be wonderfully daring and imaginative, and Neds develops in some extremely unexpected ways, with surreal fantasy sequences being incorporated into the authentic depiction of 70's Glasgow. This is a tough film – Mullan doesn't hold back on the violence, and I found one sequence deeply chilling – but it is also a complex, compassionate and resonant one, and it closes with one of the most remarkable final shots of the year.
As I watched Miral, I felt that there's a multitude of great stories to be told about this period of history, but this really isn't one of them. Even Julian Schnabel seems unsure about the tale he is telling, as he tries to pick his way through fifty years of Israeli and Palestinian conflict. The title character, played by a horribly miscast Freida Pinto, doesn't even appear in the film for much of its first half, as Schnabel labours over the backstory, first introducing us to Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who established a school for Palestinian orphans. This is an interesting story in itself, but Miral then shifts the focus to Nadia (Yasmine Al Massri), a runaway who ends up in jail, before fellow prisoner Fatima (Ruba Blal) picks up the narrative baton. Finally, attention turns again to Nadia, who it transpires is Miral's mother, but by this point in the film I was struggling to retain any interest. After the unexpected success of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel's old faults return to haunt his filmmaking here, and Miral is hobbled by a ponderous, preachy tone, distracting cameos (Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave add nothing to the film) and a flashy visual style that fails to cohere with the material. One or two scenes work, and one taut scene in which an act of terrorism is set against a scene from Polanski's Repulsion feels like it has been lifted from another, better film, but generally it just drags aimlessly. Miral's cause is not helped by that fact that Freida Pinto, when she finally does turn up, fails to show the depth and conviction required to give her frustratingly passive character some weight.
Dark Love (L'amore buio)
This is a fascinating, provocative story – and, according to the director, a true one – but it's badly fumbled in the execution. Antonio Capuano's film explores the fallout from a gang rape, with imprisoned teen Ciro (Gabriele Agrio) being the only member of the gang who feels guilty enough to confess. While inside a juvenile jail, Ciro can't stop thinking about the victim Irene (Irene de Angelis), who is slowly trying to piece her life back together, and he begins writing her letters as Capuano cuts back and forth between their stories, to observe the way they both respond to the event that has defined them. Unfortunately, his approach seems at odds with the subject matter, particularly in the flashy visuals and stylised cinematography that is often evident in Ciro's story. His handling of Irene's half of the picture is more sombre, but it feels too vague and lacking in insight, and the film as a whole is oddly passionless, which is both unexpected and disappointing. The only scene in Dark Love that really had any impact for me was a late, silent exchange of glances between Irene and her mother, and I could have done with more moments like that.
The Great White Silence (1924)
One of the undoubted highlights of last year's LFF was the archive gala screening of Underground, and this year the archive gala has again provided a very special festival experience. The Great White Silence is a documentary first produced in 1924 by Herbert Ponting, who travelled with Captain Scott on his ill-fated Antarctic expedition as the team's official photographer. The footage he returned with is extraordinary, particularly in this sensational restoration, and one can only wonder what audiences eighty years ago must have made of the penguins, seals, killer whales and alien landscapes that Ponting's camera captured. He was a daring cameraman – at one point hanging over the side of the ship to view the prow cutting through ice – but he was also a wonderful storyteller, and in The Great White Silence he has fashioned a compelling narrative. The film skilfully details the challenge faced by the expedition and finds time for amusing asides, before the tone darkens as Scott and his men trudge slowly towards their death. At its LFF gala, The Great White Silence was presented along with a new score by Simon Fisher Turner, whose haunting music – incorporating vocal work, sound effects and an effective use of silence – creates an eerily effective soundtrack. This is both a marvellous film and an invaluable historical document, and it will be released in cinemas and on DVD by the BFI next year.
Nothing's All Bad (Smukke mennesker)
Sex and loneliness are the driving factors behind the stories told in Nothing's All Bad, a bleakly funny Danish film that weaves together the lives of four disparate characters. The tone is set in the film's prologue, with a meeting between an emotional man and a prostitute provoking uncomfortable laughter, and more often than not, director Mikkel Munch-Fals successfully walks the very fine line between offending and amusing. He is greatly assisted by four excellent performances: Sebastian Jessen as a young hustler; Bodil Jørgensen as a lonely widow; Mille Lehfeldt as a young woman recovering from a mastectomy; and Henrik Prip as a man struggling to control his sexual perversions. The way in which Nothing's All Bad forms links between these characters and draws them together can often feel contrived and unconvincing, but almost every scene is superbly staged and performed, and the director creates numerous powerful moments. Nothing's All Bad did make me despair at times with its grim view of humanity – particularly of its male characters, almost all of whom are driven by sex alone – but the film also made me laugh a lot, and its clever, awkward ending is actually quite sweet.
In Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky's exploration of how women can't realise their artistic potential until they get laid – the director expresses his lead character's paranoia and duality by constantly surrounding her with mirrors. That should give you an idea of the kind of subtlety on display here, but while Black Swan is often a profoundly silly film, and one that had me laughing incredulously at times, it's also a vivid and recklessly enjoyable one, and there's certainly something admirable in Aronofsky's go-for-broke approach. At the very least, there's a great performance to behold here, with Natalie Portman giving the display of a lifetime as ballet dancer Nina, who has to unleash her darker side to play both the White Swan and the Black Swan in impresario Thomas Leroy's (Vincent Cassel) production of Swan Lake. As she does so, she is plagued by doubts, viewing sexy newcomer Lilly (Mila Kunis) as a threat and wilting under the pressure of her harridan mother (Barbara Hershey). For a while, Black Swan is gripping and hysterical, but at a certain point it just becomes hysterical and impossible to take seriously. Aronofsky serves up some striking visuals and there's an amusingly unhinged cameo from Winona Ryder (as a past-her-best star), but he's too obvious and clumsy a filmmaker to fully exploit the film's psychologically tortured aspect. Black Swan is certainly a ballsy and trashily entertaining picture, but it ultimately ends up feeling like a cluttered mash-up of The Red Shoes, Suspiria and Mulholland Drive, without ever being half as good as any of them.
Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine still hasn't received distribution after premiering at the London Film Festival in 2007, so let's hope his beautiful new film receives the attention it deserves. Poetry tells the story of 66 year-old Mija (Yoon Jeong-hee) who is suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's. In an attempt to keep her mind active, she signs up for a poetry course, and her teacher encourages her to start examining the world around her – an apple, water, a tree – to truly see these objects in a way she never has before. While this main narrative is unfolding, a secondary story emerges about Mija's sullen, uncommunicative grandson who was guilty of a terrible crime, and Poetry continually sets its central character's search for beauty against the dark ugliness of everyday life. Lee's storytelling is elegant and subtle, with the film playing out at a measured pace that allows room for intriguing minor characters, like the policeman who tells dirty jokes at poetry recitals, or the elderly stroke victim that Mija cares for. Yoon's central performance as the curious, wistful Mija is wonderful, subtly portraying her struggle to come to terms with her grandson's actions and the new sense of understanding she achieves through her poetry course. Lee handles the film's complicated emotions with skill and gracefully draws his various narrative strands together for an exquisite and deeply moving climax. Will Poetry be the first of Lee Chang-dong's films to receive a UK cinematic release? I certainly hope so.
Watching the latest Jean-Luc Godard film felt like an act of duty rather than an experience I was actively looking forward to, and as expected, the time I spent with Film socialisme gave me very little pleasure. I'm not sure what exactly Godard is trying to say here, or if in fact he has any real interest in communicating with his audience; the dialogue in the film only comes with minimalist subtitles that the director describes as "Navajo English." These texts boil the spoken language down to a handful of key words – "watch no tell time," "nocrime noblood" – and it quickly becomes clear that there's little point in trying to follow the film via this method. Instead, I focused on Film socialisme's images, which is where Godard occasionally shines. The HD photography used in the film's opening section, which takes place on a cruise ship, is vibrant and beautiful, and I found something to enjoy in this section even if I didn't understand who these people were or what their purpose was. The middle section, which takes place at a gas station that houses a llama, is very dull indeed, as is the final collage of sound and image, at which point I was frequently checking my watch. While I'm sure Godard has plenty to say about the Middle East or copyright infringement, the manner of his filmmaking made it impossible for me to connect with his ideas, and I often felt frustrated with the arrogant disdain that he appears to be displaying towards his audience. What we've got here is a failure to communicate, but I still feel I must protest at the news that the film will be available with full English subtitles when it is released in the UK next year. Whatever you think of Film socialisme, it is what it is, and this decision does seem to undermine the picture's unique nature. I wonder what Godard's view is on that?
After revealing an unexpected whimsical side in Looking for Eric, Ken Loach's Route Irish feels like a more natural fit for the director, as he uses the template of a thriller to examine the human cost of the war in Iraq. Mark Womack gives a strong central performance as Fergus, a security contractor whose best friend Frankie (John Bishop) has just been killed in Baghdad. According to the authorities, Frankie was just "In the wrong place at the wrong time," but Fergus smells a rat and begins an investigation that exposes deception and a cover-up, which eventually puts his own life in danger. While it's good to see a film considering the innocent Iraqis caught up in the crossfire, there's an uncomfortable disconnect between the polemical points that Loach wants to make and the structure of Paul Laverty's screenplay. At his best, Loach is still capable of orchestrating powerful and realistic sequences, and he pulls off a couple of memorable scenes here (a shootout in Iraq, a horrible torture scene), but Laverty's script often feels generic in its construction, particularly towards the end of the film. Likewise, the relationship between Fergus and Frankie's widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe) feels forced and poorly defined, the bigwigs in sharp suits are too obvious as the villains of the piece, and many scenes simply end with people shouting at each other. I still think Loach is a filmmaker capable of greatness and a rare veteran director who has retained his passion and integrity, but I'd like to see him working with other scriptwriters to see if they can provide him with the kind of complex, substantial material he deserves.
Brighton Rock (Surprise Film)
Rowan Joffe will tell you that his Brighton Rock is not a remake of the classic 1947 adaptation, but a new interpretation of the novel. However, it's not easy to forget the Boulting brothers' great version while watching this dismal misfire, particularly when the final scene so closely apes the original, which strikes me as a tacit admission that it couldn't be bettered. Otherwise, Joffe gets just about everything wrong, starting with the casting of Sam Riley as teenage gangster Pinkie. Adopting a silly, scratchy voice for the part, Riley never comes close to suggesting the malevolence or calculation that this character requires, and his inert central performance is a handicap the film can't overcome. Surrounding Riley, the performances from Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis are merely adequate, while Andrea Riseborough struggles gamely to give Rose some personality. Joffe seems determined to impose his own directorial personality on the material as well, but his overheated style and gimmicky shots come off as self-conscious, while the dreadful, overbearing score crashes away constantly, and the decision to update the story to the 1960's seems pointless. Nothing coheres, and the film just plods forward with a complete lack of tension and menace. A few months ago, I watched the original film when the BFI screened it on a nitrate print, and it is so much darker, sharper and – dare I say it – so much more modern than this lacklustre and completely disposable picture.