A Preview of the 64th BFI London Film Festival: Steve McQueen, Frances McDormand, and a Bit of Talking Heads

During turbulent times we find ourselves turning to art to help escape our woes, but we also count on it to help us understand and reflect on the large and nebulous forces at play that have so upended our lives. This year, as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the globe film, one of the most commercial forms of artistic expression in modern society has suffered from cinema closures and production shutdowns. As our viewing experience has already moved heavily into the digital space with online streaming services like Netflix, this attitude has become even more ingrained, with some studios choosing to premiere their films online rather than risk the health of their audience. Following suit are international film festivals, which are also looking toward digital solutions since Cannes’s unceremonious cancellation earlier this year.

The 64th BFI London Film Festival will provide a mixture of online and in-person screenings, but due to social distancing measures and an increase in online content has a much smaller line-up of films. On the one hand, this is a massive blow to a festival that relies on visiting international stars, filmmakers and press and ostentatious red-carpet premieres packed with adoring fans. On the other, the online element has resulted in this year’s festival being the most accessible yet, with film-lovers around the country being offered the chance to watch these films without having to leave their homes. Although the line-up has been severely limited, there are still plenty of terrific films to look forward to.

The opening night film is Steve McQueen’s Mangrove, an instalment of his upcoming Small Axe anthology series which chronicles the experiences of London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. Mangrove stars Letitia Wright and puts a spotlight on the true-life indictment of nine activists charged with inciting a riot after suffering abuse from the community and the police at the eponymous community centre. McQueen is expertly adept at combining mainstream filmmaking techniques with scathing critiques of the modern world and if Mangrove is anything like his previous film Widows (which also opened LFF back in 2018) this film will be an absolute must-see.

One of the most anticipated films to screen at LFF this year is Nomadland, Chloe Zhao’s follow-up to The Rider whichjust snagged the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. The film looks to be a reflection of modern American society as Frances McDormand stars as a recent widow who travels the United States in her van to take up seasonal work where she can find it, all-the-while meeting other like-minded nomads along the way.

Also appearing this year is the concert film of David Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia, which seems to be a spiritual sequel to Stop Making Sense, the film Byrne made with his band Talking Heads in 1984. Director Spike Lee’s involvement all but assures a mix of music, politics and maybe even a little spirituality as he intercuts performances of both Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo songs with works by other artists and writers like James Baldwin and Janelle Monáe. It seems American Utopia will find Lee using the music of David Byrne to capture the wider landscape of America’s current political and cultural moment.

Despite the limited programme, the festival has still managed to assemble an impressive line-up of very funny filmmakers for their comedy strand with all films directed or co-directed by women. Right up front is Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire about a very unorthodox and dysfunctional family played by Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins. Another film of interest is Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s enigmatic Never Gonna Snow Again which takes a seriocomic look at Polish society through the eyes of a masseuse who, having been born near Chernobyl, is considered to have superpowers.

There is always a strong cult movie strand at the festival, which is dedicated to screening the latest boundary pushing horror and sci-fi. Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor shows the filmmaker continuing to follow in his father David’s body-horror footsteps with a dark mind control thriller that finds Andrea Riseborough’s psychic taking over the minds of strangers and committing atrocious acts of violence. Also screening this year is Natalie Erika James’s Relic, the much-anticipated Australian chiller starring Emily Mortimer, who returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing mother (played by Robyn Nevyn) but quickly discovers there might be some dark, possibly supernatural forces at play.

The closing night film this year is Francis Lee’s Ammonite, which dramatizes the real-life Victorian-era palaeontologist Mary Anning’s (Kate Winslet) love affair with unfulfilled visiting housewife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). They find in each other kindred spirits in a world that has left Mary behind and which will not recognise Charlotte as a human being with a life and dreams of her own. Coming off his critically acclaimed debut feature God’s Own Country, Francis Lee is considered one of Britain’s rising stars and Ammonite looks to continue this massive trajectory.

As of this writing the UK government has enforced some stricter measures on the public to combat a second wave of Covid-19 infections over the next six months, which may have a further impact on the London Film Festival’s plan to offer even limited in-person screenings. Thankfully, the online option remains in place and the festival can continue in that capacity, offering its wonderfully eclectic line-up to a wider range of film fans across the country. The fact the festival is still going ahead is a minor miracle, and one that is sorely needed right now. More than ever do we need the power of film to bring us closer to understanding the world around us.

Join me here from 7th October for twelve days of festival coverage, exploring the latest offerings from the world’s most exciting filmmakers. You can find the full line-up here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Liam Dunn

Liam Dunn is an Australian writer living in London since 2013 where he has written film criticism for many different British outlets, including Little White Lies. Liam loves all kinds of cinema, particularly world cinema, but it is with horror, sci-fi and Westerns where you can find his heart. He reckons Werner Herzog is the world’s greatest living filmmaker and will fight anyone who says otherwise.

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