The 2014 BFI London Film Festival begins on Wednesday and I'll be providing regular updates from the festival throughout the next fortnight. Here's the first despatch, which includes a couple of the very best films in the programme.
'71 (Yann Demange)
With his blistering portrayal of a young offender in Starred Up, Jack O'Connell was one of the major discoveries at last year's London Film Festival, and his status as rising star is cemented by his performance in Yann Demange's remarkable thriller '71. He plays Private Gary Hook, a young British soldier sent to Belfast to help quell the unrest in the city, who finds himself stranded and on the run in enemy territory when his unit flees an angry mob and leaves him behind. The premise echoes Carol Reed's thriller Odd Man Out, but Demange – a TV director making an impressive film debut – has a much more visceral approach. He plunges us into the middle of this urban war zone and leaves us feeling as disoriented as the protagonist, who has to race through the backstreets dodging gunfire, and then must figure out how to navigate these unfamiliar surroundings to find his way back to the barracks, in a part of the city where everyone is a potential threat.
As a pure action movie, '71 is mostly executed to perfection. The film is a masterclass in tension-building and the recreation of 1970s Belfast as an urban warzone feels straikingly authentic (the sound design, particularly in the first half, is outstanding). The opening half-hour is astonishingly exciting, but the pace eventually slackens as screenwriter Gregory Burke expands his view beyond Hook's predicament to introduce secondary plots involving a great deal of double-dealing and shaky alliances between IRA generals and British special operatives. This element of the film is handled intelligently by Demange and the acting is strong across the board, but I couldn't help feeling that the increasingly convoluted nature of the plotting got in the way of '71's propulsive forward momentum. In fact, Demange's biggest weakness here is his tendency to stretch out the suspense in ways that feel increasingly artificial towards the end of the film, as the various players move into position. The film also opts for a couple of extraneous final scenes that extend the story beyond what feels like a perfect closing shot, and try to put a neat cap on a complicated situation. Still, the virtues '71 exhibits far outweigh its flaws, and as an exercise in dynamic action filmmaking there is little in recent British cinema to touch it.
10,000km (Carlos Marques-Marcet)
The title refers to the distance that develops between Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer), but when we first meet them they are enjoying a very intimate moment. After having sex, the two go through a familiar post-coital routine – washing, dressing, making breakfast and casually discussing their plans – and director Carlos Marques-Marcet simply observes them with his camera as the scene runs on in a single take that lasts for almost 20 minutes. There's a beautiful fluidity to the filmmaking in this sequence that is in stark contrast to the fragmented nature of the rest of the film. Towards the end of this opening scene, artist Alex receives an email offering her a year-long residency in Los Angeles, creating the first rupture in their relationship, and the rest of 10,000km explores the challenges these two characters face as they try to keep their relationship alive on separate continents.
The subsequent 70-odd minutes of 10,000km is divided into brief snapshots of Alex and Sergi's conversations over Skype, with title cards informing us of how many days have passed since their separation began. Our use of everyday technology is an increasing feature of contemporary films, but few directors have used it with such dramatic potency as Marques-Marcet does here. The initial enthusiasm the two characters try to maintain slowly slips into frustration, loneliness and disillusionment as the distance between them proves too difficult to bridge through a screen. Things this couple used to enjoy together suddenly become mired in awkwardness and confusion. Sergi trying to guide the hapless Alex through a dinner recipe is a highlight, as is an attempt at virtual sex on Skype, and one shot sees them lying in bed with their laptops on the pillow next to them, creating the illusion of togetherness. The pacing is perfectly judged and the performances from the only two actors we see on screen (both of whom are credited with contributing to the script) are charming, complex and emotionally true. Between them, Marques-Marcet, Tena and Verdaguer have created a remarkably intelligent and profound look at long-distance love in the modern age, and 10,000km resonates in a way that belies the minimal scale of its production.
Camp X-Ray (Peter Sattler)
As pleased as I am to see the brilliant Iranian actor Peyman Moaadi appearing in an American film, it's a shame that his route into such a picture is inevitably as a terrorist suspect in Guantanamo Bay. Nevetherless, his performance is by far the best thing about Camp X-Ray, a film that begins with a sense of purpose but then rapidly retreats from any sense of complexity or ambiguity. Kristen Stewart spends a lot of time staring at the floor and biting her lip in the role of Amy Cole, a young soldier sent to Gitmo who finds herself drawn to 'Detainee 471' or Ali (Moaadi) as she soon comes to know him. Any interaction between guard and detainee that doesn't conform to the Standard Operating Procedure is strictly forbidden, but Cole can't help responding to Ali's persuasive charm and obvious intelligence and a tentative bond is formed. Early scenes recall The Silence of the Lambs – even down to an unpleasant substance being thrown in the female lead's direction – with Cole being warned not to "let them get inside your head" and later telling Ali to "cut the Hannibal Lecter shit". We may initially wonder if Ali truly is a good guy or if he is simply a skilled manipulator, but that question falls by the wayside as first-time writer/director Peter Sattler soft-pedals the issues his story raises.
There are a few things to appreciate in Camp X-Ray. Some details jump out – such as the redacting of female pictures in the detainees' papers, or the use of "Alfred Hitchcock" as slang for the prison psychologist – but too much of the film is painted in broad, simplistic strokes. "It's not as black-and-white as they said it was" Cole muses at one point, but that's as much of a statement as the film seems willing to make. Sattler touches on the sexual harassment that Cole faces as one of the few women on the base but then goes no further with it, and returns to his central relationship which eventually strays into ridiculous territory (all Ali really wants is to read the final Harry Potter book!). The few potent moments that Sattler and his actors do manage to conjure have little impact in a film that's badly stretched at almost two hours, and the ending is frankly an insult.
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
The opening credits of Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy (complete with notices for "Dress & Lingerie" and "Perfume by...") seem to promise a pastiche of 1970s European erotic pictures such as those made by Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk or Tinto Brass. That notion stays with us when the film's premise is revealed – it concerns two women who are engaged in a series of sadomasochistic sexual fantasies behind the closed doors of an opulent house. But there is so much more to The Duke of Burgundy than this description implies, and while I was impressed by much of what this director accomplished in Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio, nothing in his work to date prepared me for impact of The Duke of Burgundy. When we first meet Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), she is the submissive maid for Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), but as we watch them go through with their repetitive rituals we gradually gain a greater understanding of the power dynamic in their relationship and how each woman actually views it.
In The Duke of Burgundy, Strickland creates a whole society of women (there's not a single male in the picture) that appears to be built around lepidoptery and sexual fetishes, and he uses this strange milieu to make one of the most perceptive examinations of a stagnating long-term relationship that I've seen on screen. Evelyn's insistence on being a submissive partner in the relationship is taking its toll on Cynthia, the older woman, who feels as trapped as one of the many pinned butterflies exhibited throughout the film and who yearns for a simpler life without painful corsets or lines to be memorised. As was the case with his Berberian Sound Studio, The Duke of Burgundy is gorgeously designed, with Strickland's production team and cinematographer Nicholas Knowland creating a rich, intoxicating, dreamlike atmosphere, but here it is weighted by a genuine emotional connection with the characters and by a playful sense of humour that teases out the absurdity of the situation without mocking it. The two lead actresses are perfectly attuned to each other and they keep the film grounded when Strickland's more outlandish ideas fail to take off, as they occasionally do, but even the dream sequences that fail to lead anywhere have a dazzling sensory impact. This is an extraordinary work; a sexy, absorbing, surprising and moving film that lingers in the memory, and marks a huge advancement for this talented, idiosyncratic director.
Queen and Country (John Boorman)
For what may well turn out to be his last film, John Boorman has returned to his own past. Queen and Country is a sequel to the director's unexpected 1987 hit Hope and Glory, his account of life as a child in London as the Blitz raged. Now that child has become a man, and Queen and Country re-introduces us to Bill (Callum Turner) just as the 18 year-old is about to start his National Service. Boorman's film unfolds as a loose collection of anecdotal scenes, but a couple of narrative threads emerge – notably Bill's infatuation with a mysterious and troubled blonde (Tamsin Egerton) and, more unusually, the theft of a clock belonging to their Sergeant Major (Brían F. O'Byrne). All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Korean War, which prompts a vivid nightmare for Bill at one point, and a sense of tonal consistency is certainly not one of the film's strong points as it flips from romance to drama to knockabout comedy.
That unevenness extends to the cast, all of whom seem to be attacking the material from a different angle. Figures of authority are played in a broad and stereotypical manner by actors like O'Byrne, Richard E. Grant and David Thewlis (who, startlingly, appears to be morphing into Brian Glover), while Caleb Landry Jones – as Bill's best friend – gives one of the most inexplicably mannered and misguided performances I've seen a film in years. Having said all of that, there is a great deal to like about Queen and Country. It's an extremely funny picture, with a number of very well played comic set-pieces and a scene-stealing turn from Pat Shortt as a man who has mastered the art of skiving, and there's the unmistakable ring of autobiographical truth about many of the vignettes Boorman includes – such as setting up a TV for the Queen's coronation, or the circumstances surrounding Bill's first cigarette. Boorman's direction is elegant and unfussy, and the whole film has an old-fashioned charm that I found pretty hard to resist (were it not for the swearing and nudity, it seems perfect for a Sunday afternoon TV slot). There are also a number of film references for cinephiles to enjoy – including a pointed discussion of Rashomon – and if this is to be Boorman's last feature, then he finds the perfect final shot to end his career on.