It is testament to the hard work of those behind the scenes that despite a major pandemic the annual London Film Festival managed to go ahead. A mixture of in cinema, virtual and country wide screenings, it truly made the event accessible, exciting and one-of-a-kind. I was lucky enough to see 3 such showings, all within very safely run cinemas, and was sad I couldn’t have seen more. I truly hope they look at how things were delivered this year and seek to emulate that when hopefully some semblance of normality returns next year. Below are my thoughts on the three films I saw, which all managed to be fantastic in their own ways.
One Night in Miami
Regina King certainly hasn’t made it easy for her directorial debut. A screen adaptation of Kemp Power’s powerful Broadway play, set in largely one location, with four larger-than-life real life figures, debating their experiences being black men in America at a time of major social upheaval. King has to turn something all too stagey into cinema, whilst balancing four very big performances, and weighing up some very heavy themes. The fact she does this with such confidence is a sign that this is the start of a very real, very exciting career for her. It never quite escapes its theatre origins but the power it wields is tangible and all-encompassing.
On a Feb night in 1964, four friends meet in a motel room to celebrate one of their number being crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World. Said Champion happens to be one Cassius Clay (not yet known as Muhammed Ali), and his friends; singer Sam Cooke, football player Jim Brown and fierce revolutionary Malcolm X. It is a night that will take in laughter, barely contained jealously, ulterior motives and discussion aplenty about each of their power within the fight for black rights. After an efficient introduction to each of them, one that touches on how every one of them has to deal with white oppression in some form (a moment with Jim Brown and a gentle seeming Beau Bridges turns into something far darker with extreme shock), they find themselves coming together to see the cocky Cassius take home the title. The delights of the writing (Kemp Powers returns to script his own words) and performances are key here. Each one of them rises above mere familiarity with their counterparts to give them all interior lives and thoughts. The easy charming banter between them is a joy to watch, despite the underlying tension we sense building. Regina King reveals her smarts here, she uses the fact that this is predominately set in one room (which of course is never an issue on stage) to lace in and strengthen the growing suffocation that they not only feel in that moment but within society as a whole. George Floyd’s heartbreaking final words, ones that ignited a necessary and still ongoing protest around the unequal treatment of black men and women the world over, “I can’t breathe,” are palpably there in every inch of these scenes.
It is not to say that King completely escapes the material’s roots though. Often the interactions are awkwardly moved somewhere else for no reason other than to break up the action. Moving the conversation to a rooftop may give us a new background but it is still just men standing around talking. Yet the words so gripping, the performances so involving that you don’t feel the cogs turning. It helps that other sequences, ones that are deservedly set away from the central location are beautifully shot, capturing the period perfectly with time specific music and handsome production design. King also conjures up some sharply edited pieces towards the end that land with intense power, a boiling stew of rage, tears, joy and resolute desire to bring about change. However her biggest success is in casting and allowing 4 incredible performers to deliver truly mesmerising performances.
The four men at the heart of One Night in Miami are iconic, a risk when put together that with the wrong actors and guidance each will just try to outdo the other in performative exaggeration. Smartly, and probably owing to her own incredible abilities as an actress, King builds their performances subtly and with the focus on realism. Sure there are the showy moments you expect from this sort of project, but they hit harder because of the quiet intimacy built previously. Each is also clearly defined from one another. Eli Goree gets Cassius’s mannerisms spot on, the brazen confidence and innate charm masking a man wracked with doubts over his choices especially ones that may affect his friends. Aldis Hodge is the quietest of the group, tasked with the more humorous material which becomes vital as the night draws on. He is one to keep an eye on though, watch his subtlety in the background, the casting of his eyes and the way he reads the room. A performance likely to be lower down in the no doubt award heavy ranks to come, but his lighter touch is key to the whole thing working.
This leaves the biggest two, and the two most emotionally heavy roles. Leslie Odom Jr is a revelation as Sam Cooke, capturing the effervescent glow of the singer with the swooning lung ability to boot. Odom gives him a swagger that is clearly envied by the other 3, but his role carries the central thrust of the antagonism between them. Malcolm X sees him as limiting the cause, a singing clown who never uses his popularity and stage to further the economic development of black communities. Cooke on the other hand sees it differently and their challenging viewpoints are key in understanding the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement. Black men were often at odds with one another at how best to protest this deep rooted inequality, and as One Night in Miami proves a lot of this was embedded in economical class. Of course Odom needs a sparring partner for this and he’s ably supported by my favourite performance of the bunch, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm. A figure both mythological in stature and risky in portrayal. How to convey the man without falling into hagiography? Ben-Adir succeeds by bringing out the man, the flaws, the strengths and all that lies inbetween. Constantly under a watchful eye, paranoia slipping in with much ease, he seems both calm and barely contained anguish at the same time. It is a performance of true absorption, and one I couldn’t look away from. His touchingly naïve attempt to throw a party (“we’ve got vanilla ice cream”) is equally endearing as the fierce monologues he delivers throughout. A sign of just how good the ensemble is though is that in any other film his would be the performance to sweep all the accolades, yet all of them would equally be as deserving to stand on the podium.
Verdict: Regina King excels with her first feature film, a tight chamber piece filled with thematic resonance, enrapturing words and four incredible performances. The sort of Night you wished would last forever.
Sometimes a film can be about seemingly little but also be about EVERYTHING. Nomadland is one such film. Based on the book by Jessica Bruder now written, directed, edited & co-produced (yes all of them) by Chloe Zhao into this lyrical work. Nomadland centres on Fern, a close to retiring former resident of Empire. A small town in the American Midwest built around the central sheetrock factory, one which suffers the consequence of recession, closing and subsequently taking the town with it. Many such towns exist like this in America, so tied to a singular place of employment that to lose it is to see the entire town die. Replaced in their wake by the corporate emotionally distant big companies such as Amazon, who employ for brief periods before sending their denizens packing. Fern works in one herself, and although Zhao doesn’t explicitly call out consumerism, it is very much in the peripheral of the larger story. Losing her home, her husband (to cancer) and her place in the world, Fern hits the road as what is lovingly known as a Nomad. A person who travels, with no set place of abode, rather her beat up DIY-shaped van is both transportation and shelter.
In terms of plot that is actually pretty much it. Nomadland is largely Fern driving across the Midwest, meeting up with fellow Nomads and eking out a simple existence. Is it an effort to find some latter day sense of purpose or has this frontier view always been who she is? Zhao never offers a clear answer. She is after something deeper, determined instead to look at our innate need for connection. Everything here is almost documentary like. The camera capturing seemingly non-events, clearing out a van, cleaning toilets, having a shit, people just chatting the breeze. Zhao never allows sentiment to cloud things, she is clearly a lover of people and all that makes them who they are. This documentary feel even comes to the cast which is largely made up of non-professional actors, and mainly actual Nomads. All this helps to add to the feel of documented realism, listening to these guys talk about their experiences, their thoughts and pain (despite being fictional characters as such) feels nothing less than truthful. Two in the cast are actors though and both give incredible performances. David Strathairn is a heartwarming gentle face, content with his travelling life but finding new meaning when his family make contact. You sense there was some past trauma that led him to this life, one that each on this path seem to have faced. In fact a lot of the conversations here stem from personal pain, suicide is mentioned a lot, and although Zhao never clarifies that that is what drives these people, it certainly is part of what drives Fern.
Fern is at the centre of every scene in this film, and for that you need a performer of suitable weight. Frances McDormand may not seem on the face of it the right fit for this quiet contemplative material, although brilliant her performances often err on the side of large. However she is simply stunning here. Quiet in tone, albeit you can sense the spirit of her previous more volatile roles in the background, and graceful in manner. McDormand becomes someone completely new, you sense she has truly given herself to this material and to Zhao. A woman who adores talking to others, listening and growing from their words, but finding herself struggling to truly come to terms with her past, her fears and her wants. It is hinted that she always yearned for this life, a charged exchange with her sister suggests as much, and a connection with Strathairn’s potential suitor is challenged when she realises he is more of a homebody than she expected. Only in confronting the woman she was, can she become the woman she needs to be. It all sounds so heavy but never feels weighty, revelations come in small glances and tiny actions. McDormand manages what few actors ever achieve, reaching true empathy in performance. This never feels like pretend empathy either, rather pure and tangible. I’d be astounded if she isn’t on awards lists come next year. Plus it’s nice to see a film centred around a lady in her 60s, leading roles which very rarely come about.
It is clear from this and her previous film The Rider, that Chloe Zhao is one of the most humane directors, never one for showy theatrics or sentimentality (I’m hoping she can bring some of that to her next unexpected project Marvel’s Eternals). Nomadland though is still intensely cinematic. Every shot is seemingly set at twilight or on the cusp of dawn. Bathed in natural light, the landscapes are almost overwhelming in their sense of scale. A way of framing Fern within the context of such massive environments to encapsulate both the enormity of her journey of self and the tininess of it in the grand scheme of things. I counted at least a dozen shots that could suitably hang in an art gallery. This is not to say the film is some sort of pretentious art fodder, some may see it as that if they cannot chime with its gentle rhythms and lack of plot. Look beyond that though and Nomadland is about life, meaning and hope, as well as Frances McDormand shitting in a bucket. How many films can say that?
Verdict: Nomadland is seemingly about nothing but carries the weight of the world on its tiny shoulders. A film of empathy, heart and soul. Blazing with sumptuous visuals and anchored by a career best Frances McDormand. This is film of the year material right here.
I was impressed to find the photo above as it features something all too rare in the film, Kate Winslet smiling. Ammonite is a cold, grey, windswept film, literally and figuratively, and that’s a good thing. The sophomore film from Francis Lee, who delivered the painfully romantic much loved God’s Own Country a couple of years back. A debut filled with confidence, power and emotional clarity, one so beloved that Lee was able to get only his second film as the closing night flick for the festival. This is another textured, highly romantic piece equally tackling the inherent strictures present in our class system, represented this time by Winslet’s Mary Anning. A real life figure in the early 1800s, famed for her skills at palaeontology, living in the bleak auspices of Lyme Regis. Intensely poor, and living with her sickly mother. Mary is rightly dour and prickly with those who enter her orbit. Largely down to the fact that thanks to the inherent masculinity of the science community her works are attributed to the men she has to sell them to to survive. Into her lowly shop one day arrives a lively gent (James McArdle) intent on seeing Miss Anning in action, but more intent on having a piece of her fossil collection to claim for his own. Alongside him though is Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte, his young bride. In the depths of despair from losing a child, and unable to accompany him on an upcoming sea journey, she is left in the care of Mary, much to Mary’s discontent.
Lee moves away from biographical detail, although much of the work side of Mary is pulled from reality, instead developing a love relationship between the two isolated women. Both finding in each other the ability to know happiness again. Despite the setting, although Lee avoids how homosexuality is perceived in Victorian times, Ammonite follows a largely predictable path from here. You have the frosty almost angry confrontations of their early interactions, Charlotte accompanying Mary on her sea swept fossil hunts, giving way to forced affection. Mary has to look after her melancholy companion after a medical treatment for her depression gives her the intense flu. Charlotte sees her carer as someone who actually shows some affection, largely missing from her aloof husband. Whilst Mary finds purpose gives her new found meaning in her life, alongside an acknowledgment of the beautiful creature before her. There on out it escalates into fervent looks, feverish touches and the inevitable sexual encounters, shot with passionate intimacy by Lee even if it does feel a tad idealised. Of course newfound happiness and love never lasts forever in these settings, and soon enough Charlotte’s husband returns with the ensuing painful severance that implies. Lee wisely avoids dramatic revelations of people discovering the affair in favour of more introspective emotional anguish.
Whilst a lot of the middle section for sure is familiar it is in the telling that Ammonite stands out. Lee is enthralled by environment and its place amongst the insular emotions of his characters. He focuses on a grubby believable tangibility to the visuals, coupled with piercing sound design such as the booming crashing of the waves. Waves that represent the torturous churning of our two heroines. The camera often pauses on surfaces, textures and hands. Touch is evidently something Lee wants to use to symbolise the buried depth of feelings between the two. We see it in the loving caresses, or the coarse abrasion of rock that signifies Mary’s tireless dedication to her work. You can practically smell and taste the sea air. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is as detailed as it is starkly beautiful. This is a film fit to burst with craft and artisanship. Using all these cinematic tricks to convey emotive quality works to a point, and the performances (more on those later) add masses more, yet there is a sometimes curious distance created. By relying on Mary’s POV for the most part, and by her very nature her being closed off, means the throbbing intensity between them isn’t always as keenly felt.
This is nothing against the two leading ladies who are both stupendous. Kate Winslet, in particular, reminds us of her copious talent. Often spending large swathes of the film in silence, she is a watchful performer capable of some of the best cutting stares I’ve seen in a film. Her sheer exhaustion and dogged determination is baked into her overall demeanour. A woman blighted by slights, disappointments and lack of familial affection. Having to clean the figurines representing all her mother’s (Gemma Jones-brilliantly cold) lost children, a painful reminder of her obligations. Watching her slowly open up and become enamoured with Ronan’s Charlotte is joyous even when we know it may not last. Saoirse Ronan has the more difficult role, and the writing often lets her down. Ronan is a very very gifted performer, managing to make Charlotte endearing throughout. Her naivety to the world and the embarrassment it arises is desperately sad. But often the film uses her as a device to position Mary where she needs to be emotively. We never get a sense of why she has fallen for Mary beyond the care she shows her early on, or why she would engage this in a sexual nature rather than as friendship. It all feels a little rushed. Largely this is a necessary sacrifice in order to place onus on Mary’s story, but it cannot help but rob the film of some of its passion. There will also be many who will chafe against the overall coldness it instils. Intentional of course but when you come for rapturous love affairs you don’t want an absence of feels. Surprisingly the strongest dramatic moment isn’t between the lovers rather Winslet and the always wonderful Fiona Shaw. A chance for Winslet to let the guards down and one that confronts her sexuality (something that Ronan never gets to do), her history and her pain.
Thankfully Ammonite pulls together in its final stretch and reveals itself as something deeper than the familiar love story we’ve watched play out. Elements of class come into play, as we see how the differences between Mary and Charlotte are not merely in age. Lee reminding us that for Anning love for another is not enough, rather love for her work. In that Ammonite is fiercely a feminist story, just as God’s Own Country tackled masculinity within a classist society. The final shot is ambiguous, heartbreaking and unexpected. Some may come for the love story but you’ll leave wanting to discover who the real Mary was and understand her work. You’ll also realise that this Francis Lee is the real bloody deal.
Verdict: Although it can often feel distant, Ammonite is a beautifully crafted and superbly acted love story. Francis Lee bringing tenderness, texture and true skill to the fore once again.