It is the first day of LFF and I take a look at Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, rural-set Australian horror Relic, and Elizabeth Moss in biopic Shirley.

Mangrove


“The United Kingdom is not a racist country,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson back in June. This was in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that had been inspired to protest in solidarity against the murder of George Floyd and many more black people at the hands of the police in the United States and around the world. He then went on to say that the peaceful protests had been “subverted by thuggery” which, like his previous statement, was a complete whitewashing of events, the kind of authoritarian doublethink that the West Indian community at the heart of Steve McQueen’s incendiary film Mangrove fought so bravely against.

Its West London in 1968 and Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), is the proprietor of the Mangrove restaurant, serving the local West Indian community a taste of home with his Caribbean cuisine. As a Black business owner, he immediately becomes the target of racist police officers. After constant raids and intimidation, Frank, along with Black Panther Altheia Jones-Lecointe (Letitia Wright) and other local activists, rally the community into a peaceful protest but are violently set upon by the police. Charged with inciting a riot, the “Mangrove Nine” are forced to defend themselves in court and bring to light the racial injustice they have suffered their entire lives.

Mangrove is an instalment of director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series developed for the BBC to tell stories chronicling the experience of Black people in Britain. As a film made for television with an angry and powerful social justice message, McQueen seems to be more than channelling the work of Alan Clarke, who’s films like Scum and Made in Britain turned a scathing, unfiltered eye to the shadows of British society, bringing to light some awful truths. However, this is still very much a Steve McQueen film. As a visual artist he knows how to employ the moving image to calcify the experiences of marginalised people in states of crisis that draws the viewer in almost to the point of participation.

McQueen has assembled an impeccable cast, anchored by Parkes and Wright who embody these real-life figures with such nuance that we are invested in them from first frame to last. The first half of the film takes us through the lives of the “Mangrove Nine” and the oppression they suffer at the hands of an antagonistic police who seem intent on turning their community into a war zone. There is a particular shot that resonates; after a police raid on the restaurant, the kitchen floor is littered with utensils, primarily a metal colander rocking back and forth in the aftermath. The shot holds for longer than it would otherwise, a calm after the storm that brings home the everyday tragedies of living under a society that views a whole group of people as the other. It is a simple shot that speaks volumes.

Once the community decides to fight back, the film explodes with energy and the activist-led protest gives a full-throated cry to oppression, which is met with more police violence. The injustice would be too much to bear if McQueen didn’t then pivot to the all-important court case, when the nine accused finally get their voices heard in the most famous court in Britain, the Old Bailey. This is where McQueen gets to show how the hypocrisy inherent in British society in 1968 has carried over to today, parroted by Boris Johnson. It is chilling how little has changed.

Not knowing the eventual outcome of the trial when watching Mangrove, it would be remiss to spoil it now, but McQueen has accomplished an extraordinary effort with only one of what will be a series of five films. The film was no doubt shot a year ago, but it seems like it has been forged in the Black Lives Matter movement of June 2020, as if it emerged from a chrysalis of activism and rage against a broken system bolstered by age-old prejudices and ignorance or just plain indifference. If any film this year could be a further rallying-cry for change, it is this one.

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Malachi Kirby

Writers: Steve McQueen, Alastair Siddons


Relic


In the early going of Natalie Erika James’s riveting and claustrophobic Australian horror Relic, Kay (Emily Mortimer) drops some quick family lore to her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) and, in an almost throwaway line, frames what is about to transpire in a patina of the supernatural, giving the film the permission to go to some places even darker than the woods which surround their rural abode. But really, the loose connection to the paranormal provides a perfect avenue for co-writer/director James to not so much make a straight-up horror film but to use the language of horror films to paint a portrait of neurological illness and familial degradation that feels all too real.

When octogenarian Edna (a remarkable Robyn Nevin) goes missing from her isolated country home, her daughter Kay and granddaughter Sam arrive from Melbourne to find out what happened. Three days later and Edna suddenly reappears, still in her nightgown and covered in dirt. Kay quickly believes that her mother is suffering from dementia and needs to be put in a care home. As the days tick by the three women begin to struggle with their own inner demons; Edna’s realisation that her mind (and her life) is slipping away from her, Kay’s fear and guilt over abandoning her mother and Sam’s naïve inability to grasp the magnitude of the events around her. If that wasn’t bad enough, the house itself seems to be changing and reflecting this negative energy back at its occupants in increasingly malicious ways.

Horror films are at their best when they make manifest our deepest social or cultural fears and Relic finds a fresh take on the “Cabin in the woods” trope in its exploration of a family suffering from their matriarch’s life-changing neurological illness. Director James and co-writer Christian White’s slow-burn approach adeptly dramatizes Edna’s gradual decline, pulling her family, and by-proxy the audience, into the dark and horrifying perspective of what it must be to suffer from this kind of complex disorder. The way this is personified is in the family homestead itself, which becomes a diabolical space reflecting the tension and fear inward until the women become literally lost within a labyrinth of grief, guilt and sickness. While there may be a hint at a supernatural force, it’s the women’s internal lives that are the point of origin for these shocking transformations, making clear that this is a domestic drama at its heart, made even more apparent by its perfectly pitched final moments.

Brilliantly performed by the entire cast, especially Nevin, Relic is an astonishing debut feature from James. The film has atmosphere to burn and James uses the horror toolbox to push every button she can, without sacrificing story or character, in order to bring the audience into a world with characters that feel emotionally real, even as reality breaks down around them. Comparisons to The Babadook have no doubt been made, as Jennifer Kent’s debut also used horror to explore trauma in fascinating ways, but James is an exciting new genre voice and Relic is a wholly original beast.

Director: Natalie Erika James

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote, Robyn Nevin

Writers: Natalie Erika James, Christian White


Shirley


In one of the many awkward dinner scenes of Josephine Decker’s (almost) biopic of author Shirley Jackson (an impressive Elizabeth Moss), Shirley’s husband, folklore academic Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), waxes intellectual about his would-be protégé’s dissertation, flippantly reviewing it as “terrifically mediocre.” It is a shame then, the film as a whole can only be described using those exact same words, as director Decker, while showing growth as a filmmaker with her third feature, suffers at the hands of a scatter-shot script that cannot seem to find its emotional centre.

In the early 1950’s young academic Fred (Logan Lerman) and his young wife Rose (Odessa Young) travel to Vermont where Fred is to take up a position at Bennington College. They are taken in by Stanley Hyman and his wife Shirley Jackson, who is becoming a writer of some renown. We follow the young couple as they are drawn into the power games at play between their hosts, as Shirley struggles with alcoholism and agoraphobia and Stanley’s unabashed philandering and emotional abuse. As Shirley begins work on a new book, the couples become reflections of one another, viewed through a glass darkly.

Werner Herzog coined the phrase “the ecstatic truth” to describe an approach to storytelling that seeks to find or merely touch the ethereal quality of a subject or story rather than focus on the nuts and bolts of typical narrative or what he also calls “the accountant’s truth.” Shirley is a film that aims quite directly at the former, drawing in disparate elements from Jackson’s life and stories (as well as a biography by Susan Scarf Merrell), even inventing the characters of Fred and Rose, in an attempt to present a literary encapsulation of their subject’s essence, rather than tell a traditional origin story.

This can be a difficult balance to strike. Decker manages to wonderfully assemble a collage of imagery that presents 1950s America as a realm of false decorum masking ugly realities, crossing the boundaries between the world of the characters and the world of Jackson’s fiction in tangential but effective ways. Unfortunately, this style cannot transcend the clunky script by Sarah Gubbins which keeps Shirley at arm’s length, unwilling or even afraid to get too close.

Moss and Stuhlbarg are great as the central odd couple who seem to thrive on antagonising each other and everyone around them. Lerman and Young, as the innocent couple drawn into their vortex, do not fare so well. The characters are so thinly drawn and clichéd that there is a struggle to engage with their journey and this furthers the audience even more from Shirley herself. Shirley offers an opportunity to explore the life and imagination of one of America’s greatest authors and aims for ecstatic truth but unfortunately in the end it is just terrifically mediocre.

Director: Josephine Decker

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg

Writer: Sarah Gubbins, (based on the novel Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell)