Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel
Words – Daniel McMonagle
2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…
Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.
Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.
Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.
Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.
On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.
Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia
Words – Oliver Innocent
Touted as the heir to the throne of Stephen King, Liverpool-born horror novelist Clive Barker came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his short story collections, Books of Blood. These stories were both lyrical and explicit, frequently blurring the lines between the erotic and the horrific.
This predilection for the merging of pleasure and pain would reach its apotheosis in Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. There had been film adaptations of Barker’s work before such as the B-monster-movie romp, Rawhead Rex (1986), however Hellraiser marked a turning point. Bloody, sexy and iconic, Hellraiser opened the floodgates.
While Hellraiser metamorphosed into a never-ending franchise juggernaut, Barker returned to directing duties with the misunderstood commercial and critical failure, Nightbreed (1990). Then came Candyman.
Adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman – based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden from Books of Blood – retains that unmistakable Barker feel at the same time expanding into new territories.
The most notable change from the source material is the transposing of the setting from Liverpool to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. Rather than a mere cosmetic change, this shifts the story’s focus entirely. Where The Forbidden looked at the British class system, Candyman examines the divide between black and white America.
The legend goes that in the late 19th century the titular ‘Candyman’, an artist and son of a slave, fell in love with a landowner’s daughter he was hired to paint, whereafter she became pregnant. The furious landowner instigated a lynch mob who ran him down, sawed off his arm and smeared him with honey so he would be swarmed by bees, before burning him on a pyre. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Chicago housing project would later be built.
Over the years an urban legend developed surrounding the hook-handed ghost of the Candyman; if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, he will appear behind you before splitting you from groin to gullet. The film follows Helen, a university student studying the legend, as she gets drawn deeper into the world of the Candyman more than she could have ever imagined.
Candyman captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with its examination of the dichotomy between black and white America.
This was a time when hip hop was rapidly gaining both popularity and credibility – artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube rapped about ghetto life, racism, and the political and social issues affecting African Americans at the time. These same issues were portrayed in cinema in films such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. Horror often addresses the fears, anxieties and issues of the time so it’s no surprise a film like Candyman emerged a year after Boyz n the Hood, looking at race relations through the lens of horror. What is surprising (or unfortunately for many, not so), is how relevant Candyman still is.
With its depiction of a black man lynched by a white mob, housing projects and gang violence, Candyman feels more prescient than ever amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It almost seems fitting (though for reasons which stem from tragic incidents) that Candyman is due to return in a “spiritual sequel” to the original film.
It’s even more pertinent that the upcoming sequel has been developed by a black female director, Nia DaCosta, and black filmmaker Jordan Peele whose previous horror thrillers, Get Out and Us, also comment on race, class and identity.
Along with this new blood, some of the original cast are due to return including the original Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Appearing in numerous genre films before and after, it’s Candyman that remains Todd’s defining role. He ensured the character would go on to become a horror icon with his commanding presence, eloquent speeches and deep baritone voice. The hook for a hand and chest full of bees didn’t hurt either.
The Candyman could have easily become a Blaxploitation monster single-mindedly haunting a white woman. Todd elevates the Candyman above this. He’s a tragic, romantic figure with a yearning for living on as a legend because his own life was forcibly taken from him. His desire to be with Helen because he believes she is the reincarnation of the love he lost his life for transcends the stereotype of the black monster’s lust for a white woman.
Virginia Madsen’s Helen similarly differs to the standard horror heroine. She’s a married graduate student focused on her studies, rather than the usual single naive ‘final girl’ or the party loving horny teen. This makes her descent even more tragic as the Candyman seeks to take everything from her so she can be with him forever. Madsen really shows her range with this performance, from the confident, hard-working Helen at the film’s outset to the driven to hysteria Helen of the final act.
Helen’s investigation into the legend highlights another important aspect of the film; it doesn’t forget to be scary. The examination of race relations adds to the horror rather than distracting from it, something that could have easily happened had the adaptation fell into less confident hands.
Writer-director Bernard Rose ensures there’s an uncomfortable tension as Helen explores the housing project and encounters a group who think she’s a cop – this culminates in a harrowing encounter in a toilet where she’s beaten up by a gang of men – it’s the flipside to Candyman’s encounter with the white lynch mob. Here it is Helen, a white middle-class woman, who is the outsider.
The supernatural element of the legend is also expertly handled. A riff on the Bloody Mary legend, the drawn out saying of Candyman into a mirror, punctuated by his sudden appearance is a truly terrifying image, amplified by Philip Glass’s iconic, haunting score.
Much like the legend of the Candyman himself, the story of the film has grown in the years that have followed, now feeling more relevant than ever before.
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Starring: Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Enzo Cannavale, Isa Danieli, Leo Gullotta, Agnese Nano, Leopoldo Trieste
Words – Christian Abbott
“The old movie business is just a memory”, a line which summates so much feeling through nostalgia, perfectly capturing the essence of this film. The old movie business may indeed just be a memory now, but it is here that its power lives on, and its legacy and impact will never be forgotten.
Released over three decades ago, cinema has changed profoundly since this time, but the power of the cinematic remains true.
A story following the life of a now renowned filmmaker, Toto, as a message to return to his hometown sparks the memories of his upbringing both in and around his beloved Cinema Paradiso. It’s a timeless tale of childish naivete and young love, between him and cinema. It’s a perfect foundation to explore cinema’s glittering lure.
There is something uniquely wonderful about films that capture this unique love of cinema. Perhaps, this is because it is a rare display of genuine appreciation for the art form of the cinema itself, or, more likely, it is because those that appreciate film with the same youthful infatuation that Toto has for the projection room, sometimes need nothing more than two hours of cinematic self-indulgence.
From writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore, it is clear this was crafted by a loving hand; there is scene after scene of people gathering, laughing, cheering, and celebrating the sheer potential of the big screen. People brought together into a dark room to share in its emotions, cinema is a truly unique experience and this champions it like no other.
There are consistent low-angle shots of Toto, as he is transfixed by the screen; the projectors beam of light above him, Tornatore creates a mythic feeling. In conjunction, Ennio Morricone provided an angelic score, a soundtrack to cinema itself, and one of his absolute finest pieces in a career of consistent greats.
There is a lesson Toto learns in his young life, that sometimes you need to step away from something to truly appreciate it, as hard as that may be. We may all take the cinema for granted, after all, it has always been there and through works like this, it always will be. But like Toto, when you take a step back things become clear, and through his eyes, through the lens of Tornatore, we see that cinema should never be taken for granted, because its effects both on the personal and on the public can never be fully understood, though Cinema Paradiso is the best understanding of why we will always go to the cinema.
See details of a forthcoming 4K restoration and cinema re-release here:
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba
Words – Christian Abbott
All great films can be traced back to other works of art from decades past. The cynical would say that nothing is original anymore, but what it truly shows is that art, and especially cinema, is a never ending cycle of inspiration and reinterpretation. Often, this comes at the detriment to the previous work, as it slowly becomes overshadowed by the piece that exists because of it.
Arguably, one of the most obvious examples of this is when it comes to The Magnificent Seven (1960). Almost everybody knows of this film and understands its cultural impact, but some may not realise what inspired it. To take nothing away from John Sturges’ classic re-imagining, one shouldn’t forget the original, as its impact reaches far beyond its Hollywood remake – it defined and helped create genre-fiction as we know it today.
Released in 1954 by legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai was the result of years of research and heavyweight talent coming together. The result was one of cinema’s most impressive and enduring ensemble casts, and a cinematic eye that is still sharper than most.
An old samurai in need of work is hired by a town to protect them against a series of bandits. To do this, he enlists 6 more samurai’s to protect and supply the town with aid. The sequence of events is a familiar one to modern audiences, but it is told so expertly, with genuine ingenuity and cinematic innovation that it still can hold its own against any modern action blockbuster.
From the initial hire, through building a team, holding the bandits back piece by piece and ultimately leading to a massive battle still excites now. Sometimes you need nothing more than a classic tale of redemption and honour; and this is that film.
Kurosawa’s editing and Asakazu Nakai’s cinematography have been written about at length and their impact can be felt across cinema. But understanding it is one thing, to see it yourself is another. The sweeping shots, silhouetted framing and persistent, gilding changes from wide and close-up captivate in a way only cinema achieves.
Seven Samurai has good company in Kurosawa’s canon for reinterpretation. The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Yojimbo (1961) were both famously re-worked into Star Wars (1977) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964), respectively. Great work inspires future great artists, which in turn inspire more.
Today, the words remake and reboot feel tainted by consistent failure – the mere mention of a remake can turn audiences away and actively annoy others for perceived disrespect to the original work.
Yet, the legacy and history of Seven Samurai stands as a testament to its merits. Without it, so much of cinema we enjoy and define ourselves by wouldn’t exist. So many great filmmakers wouldn’t have seen 7 samurai warriors protect a small village, inspiring them to create stories that will inspire us.
This is truly a milestone in cinema and should never be side-lined or forgotten. Kurosawa’s filmography is a catalogue of greats, but Seven Samurai stands alone. For a reminder of why cinema is great – watch Seven Samurai.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Park So-dam, Jeong-eun Lee, Hye-jin Jang, Ji-so Jung
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Rarely does a film defy all cinematic conventions and pull it off flawlessly. Even more rare is for a film to please so many different genres, yet seem almost completely genre-less.
There is so much to say about Parasite, none of which should be discussed openly in a one-way format such as this: it is highly recommended going into this film without any prior knowledge of what it is or where it will go. So how to go about describing this artistic feat, aside from the obvious statements that it is undeniably Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, and easily one of the best films in decades?
Let’s start with painting as simple a picture as possible. Whereas Bong’s previous films, the irreverent Okja and dystopian future incision Snowpiercer, focussed on alternative realities, the social skewering in Parasite is distinctly tangible.
The Kim family live in a small semi-basement and all struggle to hold down employment. They rush around their squalid home trying to connect to free WiFi and leave their windows open when the fumigators spray the streets to try and clear the stink-bugs moving in.
One day, the Kims are visited by son Ki-woo’s friend Min-hyuk, who gifts them a mysterious rock which is said to bring wealth to those who possess it. When Min-hyuk suggests Kim-woo pretend to be a university student and take over his job tutoring the daughter of the wealthy Park family, what follows is an opportunistic snowballing plot devised by the Kims which is equal parts genius and dangerous, rational and absurd.
By exploiting the credulous Park matriarch, using a creative variety of props from underpants to peaches, the Kims find a way for each of them to secure work within the concrete walls of the Park’s modernist mansion, a risky endeavour which involves usurping the family’s loyal housekeeper.
After all of the Kim clan have secured their posts in the Park home, the latter depart for a camping trip to celebrate their son’s birthday. While they’re away, the Kim’s spend the night in the luxury of their employers’ home, enjoying the kind of food and beverages they would seldom have access to back in their semi-basement. This marks the transition into the film’s second act; the Kim’s gestation period has been successful, remarkably so, and the rug is about to get violently pulled from under them.
Bong’s commitment to the nuances of social reality allows Parasite to not only traverse the audience’s constantly changing expectations (are the rich going to use their wealth and resources to outsmart the poor? Are the Kims going to overthrow the house?) but also shift gears from jaunty comedy to a white-knuckle thriller as faultlessly as Ki-taek turning corners on a busy road, smooth and confident as the ignorant but judgemental Mr Park looks on haughtily from the backseat.
As the story unravels and your jaw gradually makes its way to the floor, you quickly come to realise that it’s hard to distinguish who the ‘bad guys’ are here—an intentional move which speaks to the title of the film. There are the haves, basking in their fortune in the comfort of their sun-lit houses in the hills, and the have nots, confined to chthonic basements and subservience to the thankless demands of their employers.
Everything here is ‘metaphorical’, to steal a frequently recurring term from the film, but it is also everything you could ever want from a film: suspenseful, beautiful, at times hilarious, and always compelling.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai
Words – Rebecca Kirby
It took fifty years for the original, uncut version of Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” (or Gojira) to receive an official release for western audiences. In that time the films powerful message has not diminished.
“Godzilla” may be the first Kaiju (literally translated as strange creature) movie and it might feature a man in a rubber suit crushing a miniature version of Tokyo, but this is so much more than the standard B movie creature feature western audiences were accustomed to. Made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA, Godzilla explores a very complex set of emotions.
With an air of dread and a bleak theme, “Godzilla” embodies the destructive atomic realisations of the Japanese nation, the worlds first post apocalyptic society. It’s a window into the soul of a nation that had it’s psyche crushed in unimaginable horror, rebuilding under US occupation and trying to come to terms with it’s past and future.
Director Ishiro Honda, who had been drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during wartime, not only witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 but also saw first hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s clear to see how this influenced Godzilla’s scene’s of devastation in Tokyo, full of haunting visions of a city on fire.
The film was considered so bleak, particularly for American audiences, that the version that was released to western audiences in 1956, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” was re-edited to remove around forty minutes of footage, including some key plot points and to incorporate twenty minutes of new footage featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. This version was dubbed into English and featured a more uplifting final statement from Burr.
Originally conceived under the working title of “The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea“, the initial creature designs were very different from the Godzilla we now know and love. The original outline featured a giant octopus, while later a gorilla or whale inspired creature was considered, with the monster to be christened Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira) before settling on the now iconic dinosaur inspired design.
The Godzilla suit was constructed from latex and molten rubber over a frame built from bamboo, wire and metal mesh. Weighing over 200 pounds, the suit was so heavy that performer Haruo Nakajima would pass out after only three minutes inside and lost 20 pounds during filming.
Godzilla’s distinctive cry was created by composer Akira Ifukube by running a leather glove along a stringed instrument after recordings of various animals were dismissed.
Opening with the destruction of a small fishing boat by a unknown force off Odo Island, itself a reference to the Lucky Dragon 5 incident in 1954, where a Japanese trawler was caught in the radioactive fallout from a US nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, “Godzilla” spells out it’s intentions from the start.
When a further incident causes destruction on Odo Island, killing nine people and dozens of farm animals in the process, the Government sends paleontologist Dr Yamane to investigate.
Dr Yamane discovers giant radioactive footprints along with a long extinct trilobite, before he has the opportunity to glimpse the terrifying Godzilla himself. He concludes that Godzilla is an ancient sea creature whose habitat has been disrupted by the hydrogen bomb tests conducted in the area.
After a plan to destroy Godzilla by using depth charges fails, the government seeks advice from Dr Yamane on how to kill the monster. Dr Yamane insists that having survived the H-bombs, Godzilla cannot be killed and the only course of action is to study him to understand how he has survived the nuclear blasts and even grown stronger as a result.
Emiko, Dr Yamane’s daughter seeks to break off her engagement to Dr Serizawa, a colleague of her father, in order to marry Hideto Ogata, a salvage ship captain that she is in love with. When Emiko visits Dr Serizawa he reveals to her the secret project that he has been working on. This demonstration causes Emiko to flee in horror without breaking off her engagement.
After Godzilla emerges in Tokyo Bay and devastates Shinagawa Ward, a further plan to kill him is put into action involving electrified fences and military force but this too fails. Tokyo suffers further destruction and hospitals are filled with casualties.
A distraught Emiko reveals the existence of Dr Serizawa’s research, a superweapon named the Oxygen Destroyer, to Ogata. Together they approach Serizawa to persuade him to use this against Godzilla. Serizawa is reluctant to use the Oxygen Destroyer as he fears it falling into the wrong hands but after seeing the aftermath of the devastation of Tokyo he finally agrees to it’s use.
Before boarding a Navy vessel to plant the Oxygen Destroyer in Tokyo Bay, Serizawa burns his notes so the weapon cannot be replicated. Once the ship has reached it’s destination, Serizawa insists on deploying his creation alone, deliberately cutting off his own oxygen supply in the process.
The Oxygen Destroyer succeeds in killing Godzilla and the film ends with a sober and grim warning from Dr Yamane that the continuation of nuclear testing would risk the emergence of more Godzilla’s.
It’s perhaps worth noting here the contrast between Dr Serizawa, who would rather sacrifice himself than allow his invention to be used for war, with the initial celebration in the US of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, who would appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1948. Ironically, Oppenheimer would appear on the cover of Time once again in 1954, the same year Godzilla was released, when he was stripped of his security clearances after suggesting that controls should be placed on the development of nuclear power.
Ultimately, the death of Godzilla is not seen as something to celebrate, the film never shying away from the fact that man is responsible for creating this monster. While his path of destruction must be stopped, Dr Yamane serves to remind us that Godzilla is also a victim of mankind’s nuclear ambitions, an unintended but inevitable consequence of the human disregard for the natural world.
Considering the current state of the planet’s climate and the continued stock piling of nuclear weapons by the world’s superpowers, it seems that in the 66 years since Godzilla was first unleashed we have still yet to learn those lessons.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luàna Bajrami, Valeria Golino
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Describing a film as a ‘historical drama’ conjures particularly priggish dress, dialogue and narrative, none of which is typically original or disruptive to the staid all ways of the genre.
Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, however, is not one of those historical dramas. There is still a plentiful of corsets and petticoats, and there’s at least one character who’s a countess, but there is also something else: a genuine, recognisable sense of human desire, embroiled with obsession, fear, and of course, lots of sexual tension.
Set in Brittany in 1760, Portrait recounts a tale of forbidden love. When we first meet Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter now posing for her class of female students, it would almost be befitting for her to turn, look down the lens of the camera, and do a Fleabag: “This is a love story.”
We then go back in time to unravel the slow burning and passionate romance that flourished during Marianne’s brief stay on the northern coast of France. It was here where she was drafted by an Italian noblewoman to paint a portrait of her elusive and reclusive daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which will then be shipped off for approval from her betrothed, an unknown but wealthy man based in Milan.
Marianne’s stay is under the guise of companionship to Héloïse, who has just returned from a convent following the death of her sister. Not only is she mourning the loss of her sibling, but she also vehemently opposes this engagement and has sabotaged the attempts of previous portraitists by refusing to sit for them. Marianne is to accompany Héloïse on her walks to the seafront by day, and then privately paint her from memory by night.
Sciamma establishes the essence of forbidness from the outset, keeping Héloïse’s face hidden from both Marianne and the viewer until a pivotal moment when suddenly her physiognomy is brought to the fore for all to see, like the rediscovery of a masterpiece thought lost or destroyed.
Initially there seems to be a relative froideur between the two women, who are, beneath the pretence of amity, basically strangers. Marianne is both perplexed and transfixed by Héloïse’s mysteriousness, and on the surface one could mistake the latter’s distance as mere pretentiousness or formality. But the truth is all in the sly, yet often obvious, stolen glances; the slow-burning infatuation of discovering something new about someone every time you look at them, and the sheer pleasure and confusion of savouring those moments to yourself and then, in this case, eventually having to share those memories with an unknown other elsewhere on the continent.
There have been plenty of obvious comparisons between Portrait and Blue is the Warmest Colour. What’s distinct and profound about this story is that there’s no immediate attraction or lust; an easy narrative device that male directors so readily employ in retelling relationships between women. Rather, this is about seeing and being seen, the corporeal as much as the spiritual and emotional, and this goes beyond the romance.
This notion speaks directly to the central theme of repressed womanhood: Héloïse is to be married to someone she has never met, and is to sit for a portrait which successfully sells her as a suitable wife; her doting maid, Sophie, is forced to make a historically significant choice about an unwanted pregnancy, a momentous decision which Marianne later depicts on canvas; and Marianne’s very profession is a display of defiance, during a time when women were either heavily restricted in their access to creativity and art or were shut out completely.
Reversing the male gaze has never been done with quite the grace and poignancy as shown in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and every element works in harmony to create something so subjectively accessible and objectively beguiling, from the chemistry between the all-female cast to the masterful direction and prophetic script, and the opening scene in Marianne’s studio to the climactic grand finale in the opera house.
Director: Shannon Murphy
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Ben Mendelsohn, Essie Davis
Words – Rhiannon Topham
Our first flame is usually a clumsy affair, defined more by how awkward everything is than any real or lasting affection. The majority of these ‘relationships’ end swiftly with the heartbreaking realisation that things seldom last forever; but for Babyteeth’s 16-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen), this has particular poignancy as she knows that her first love is probably going to be her last.
Milla has an unnamed form of terminal cancer, for which her doting parents, the gifted pianist Anna (Essie Davis) and psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), bestow a great deal of anguish that Milla does not share. When 23-year-old Moses (Toby Wallace) charges into Milla on a train platform, nearly tossing her onto the tracks, a tempestuous and often dangerous romance ensues. In addition to the age gap, and rather predictably, these two darlings are completely different in almost every possible way; Moses is a drug taker and dealer who has been exiled from the family home, whereas Milla lives in a leafy middle class suburb, attends a girls only school and plays the violin.
Scanlen strikes a subtle balance in negotiating Milla’s amorphous emotions, moving from fury to acceptance to vulnerability and back again. Mendelsohn and Davis are also on fine form, each bringing a different quality of helplessness to their parenting responsibilities as well as nuances in how they distract themselves from the reality that their baby will probably never get better and the kindest thing to do would be to let her savour what life she has left, no matter how questionable those choices may be.
Despite Milla’s displays of defiance, the good days are woven in with the bad and we are reminded of her frailty at several key stages of the film, marked out by chapter titles such as “It didn’t feel like a love story that day” and “What the dead said to Milla”, an especially delicate scene of introspection where Milla is allowed some space to breath outside of Moses’ raucous nature and the deafening clamour of her parents walking on eggshells.
As a debut, Babyteeth is a compelling tragicomedy of family, love and acceptance. It is by no means the first teenage cancer indie film, yet this consummate cast keep this one from crossing into cliche on the well-trodden ground of coming of age romcoms, interjected by overtly concerned and covertly struggling parents.
Director: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle
Words – Rhiannon Topham
It takes a very rare beast of a directorial debut to make you wince, laugh and question the capacity of the human mind in less than 90 minutes.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, a sinuous saga of madness and torment respects the many religion-inspired films in the horror genre, but suggests a surprising range of stylistic and narrative inspirations, from Lynn Ramsay’s grit to Edward Hopper’s loners in diners.
Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative nurse in a dilapidated seaside town who we first see crouched in a corner covered in blood. As far as first impressions go, it’s about as menacing as it can get. When she’s drafted to care for Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer and choreographer now rendered housebound by illness and disability, the initial apprehension between the two eases into admiration and intrigue before regressing to outright repulsion; Maud for Amanda’s decadent lifestyle and coterie of hedonistic creatives, Amanda for Maud’s myopic opinion of how life should be lived.
Maud is a character of extremes; self-destructive in one ‘life’ and ascetic in another. Her obsequious quest to strive in her newfound piousness is juxtaposed with Amanda’s lucid, albeit anaesthetized, compos mentis. Maud’s religious conversion has granted her a moxie seemingly absent in her past, when, it transpires, she wasn’t a Maud at all. The fresh Maud persona is one she has crafted to support her search for the ‘greater purpose’ God has planned for her, an unassailable transcendental goal which swallows her whole and greedily possesses her in mind, body and spirit.
Maud’s nascent life of righteousness comes to an abrupt end when she is removed from her post as Amanda’s carer. Where to go when you are stripped of your purpose in life? All of her feelings of jealousy, confusion, virulence and an almost psychedelic bodily experience of spirituality reach fever pitch as she succumbs to the darker forces chipping away at her sanity and she becomes mimetic of the hellish creatures depicted by William Blake in a book gifted to her by Amanda.
As an addition to the horror-Renaissance of recent years, Saint Maud is an alarmingly accomplished debut by a talented and — dare I say it — innovative director to get excited about. Glass has clearly wasted no time on narrative trumpery with this, and at a tidy 84 minutes, all the key proponents harmonise perfectly to create an unnerving atmosphere in which neither Maud nor the audience are sure what our Saint will do next.
This is no average God-fearing horror; it is the fragility of the human mind that is the most frightening.
Director: George A Romero
Starring: Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith
Words – Oliver Innocent
In 1968 director George A Romero rocked the horror genre with his zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later he repeated this trick with his follow-up to Night, Dawn of the Dead. The middle section of his three-decade dalliance with the dead (culminating with 1985’s Day of the Dead), Dawn takes place in a world where the tide has turned, and the zombies have begun to take over.
From the first night of the zombie apocalypse in Night to a world completely overrun in Day, Romero’s trilogy of the dead chronicles the deterioration of society and life as we know it. Each film is a product of its era as well as a comment on the issues and socio-political climate of the time. It is in this way that each entry in the saga has its own distinct personality, look and feel.
As a product of the ‘70s, Dawn immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessor with full garish colour cinematography in complete contrast to Night’s stark monochrome imagery. In keeping with the era of three-hour epics like The Godfather and The Deer Hunter, Dawn is notably much longer, bigger and expansive compared with Night’s condensed claustrophobia.
Dawn of the Dead focuses on a new misfit band of survivors who take refuge from the zombie apocalypse in a large indoors shopping mall. Again, there is a strong cast. Standing out this time is Ken Foree who, thanks to his role as protagonist Peter, has become a genre staple, appearing in films such as Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and The Devil’s Rejects.
An interesting, unique setting, the mall’s various shops and features make for a multitude of imaginative ways to keep the zombie hordes at bay. As many critics have already noted, the mall setting also works on another level as Romero’s comment on consumerism. Indeed, the imagery of mindless zombie hordes aimlessly wandering around isn’t very far removed from what can be observed on a real-life trip to your local shopping centre. Zombies and shoppers both go for the same reason, to consume. The only difference is the zombies consume flesh.
It’s not just consumerism Romero tackles. There’s sensationalist TV worried about ratings even in the midst of the world coming to an end; police brutality and racism with cops going on a killing spree; abortion and a woman’s right to choose if she wants to keep her child; and man’s predilection for violence and enjoyment of a lawless world. Most of these issues seem to suggest that, even without the zombies, mankind is doomed.
Despite this, Dawn is fun, funny and exhilarating. It has some great action set-pieces like the biker raid on the mall, as well as some truly hilarious moments of black comedy such as the biker gang throwing pies at the zombies. Romero even inverts the standard bleak, downbeat ‘70s horror ending he himself popularised in Night with a relatively happy ending offering a glimmer of hope for the survival of mankind.
Just as Night informed the direction of the horror film genre in the ‘70s, so too did Dawn alter the course of the genre in the ‘80s. Inspired by Dawn, films like The Evil Dead, Fright Night and Re-Animator became more colourful, humorous, and over-the-top. They also became gorier and more effects driven.
Indeed, Dawn’s influence on the progression of practical special effects makeup and gore cannot be overstated. Thanks to Dawn’s effects wizard Tom Savini, special makeup effects artists became the rockstars of ‘80s horror.
They were often the main reason fans would flock to see the latest horror film. Not because of the actors or the directors, it was the tantalising draw of seeing the newest, most astounding special effects that really drew the crowds. Horror magazine Fangoria celebrated and popularised this fandom even further, with a focus on behind the scenes photographs and interviews with artists discussing how they achieved their effects.
Savini’s work on Dawn became the stuff of legend, paving the way for the increasingly complex and outlandish effects of the next decade. And for good reason; his effects are not only ground-breaking in terms of their technical prowess and believability, but also because of their creativity.
One of the most memorable aspects of Dawn of the Dead are the numerous creative ways in which the undead are dispatched. Heads explode in fountains of gore, guts are pulled out, and various body parts are dismembered with machetes and helicopter rotor blades. Simultaneously disgusting, entertaining, and funny, Tom Savini’s gory effects are the perfect punchline to George A Romero’s clever ‘70s satire.
See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.
See our retrospective feature on Day of the Dead (1985) >here<.
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Sherman Howard
Words – Oliver Innocent
Quite possibly the most revered independent horror film of all time, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) laid down the blueprint for a new wave of horror which took off and proliferated during the 1970s. Night differentiated itself from the horror movies of the past with its confrontational, explicitly violent subject matter which worked simultaneously as both straightforward shock machine and allegory for the state of contemporary Vietnam-era America.
The film struck a real chord with filmgoers and cash strapped yet creative filmmakers alike, ushering in a golden age of controversial, cutting-edge independent horrors; films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) all followed Romero’s blueprint of a single location besieged by an unspeakable evil, while exploring the social and political problems plaguing America (or, in the case of Shivers, Canada) at the time, tackling taboo issues of sex and violence head on, and invariably ending on downbeat notes. Romero himself would return to the fray in the late ‘70s to reclaim his crown with arguably his most accomplished and popular film to date, the zombies in a shopping mall epic Dawn of the Dead (1978).
A follow up to Night, exploring how the zombie epidemic has spread in the intervening years, Dawn is nevertheless a very different beast. Looking to put a new spin of the zombie format and purposefully striving not to repeat himself, Dawn’s colourful comic book imagery and black comedy criticism of consumer culture is the antithesis of Night’s starkly serious monochrome nightmare. With its exuberant action stylings, infusion of comedy and splatter, and surprisingly upbeat ending, Dawn proved itself to be much more palatable and entertaining than the more nihilistic Night. Quickly establishing itself as something of a fan favourite, it is unsurprising that expectations were high when Romero finally returned to the series almost a decade later with Day of the Dead.
Upon release, Day was neither a hit with audiences or critics. Compared to the funhouse ride that was Dawn, it was simply too dark, too violent, too claustrophobic. In other words, it just wasn’t the film that everyone expected. In the decade when horror was beginning to have fun with the likes of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) leading the way, Day just seemed like too much of a downer.
Often viewed as the ugly stepchild of the original Dead trilogy, it is only recently that Day’s status as another Romero horror classic is beginning to become clear. Viewed in hindsight, Day reveals itself as something of an unsung gem, and in many ways it stands up a lot better today than either Night or Dawn.
For one, the effects are absolutely top-notch, gore maestro Tom Savini’s sickening, gut munching makeup being the best it’s ever been. It also boasts some of the most intense and outlandish characters Romero has ever committed to screen, the best of the bunch being the perpetually angry military dictator Captain Rhodes. There’s also Bub the Zombie, the first of Romero’s undead to be bestowed with a personality and a modicum of intellectual prowess. The underground mine setting is also highly effective, inciting a degree of boiling point tension surpassing even that of the farmhouse in Night. Another of Romero’s microcosms standing in for contemporary America, the mine crams together a diverse group of soldiers, scientists and civilians of different ethnicities and backgrounds, allowing for a vicious critique of Reagan Era race and military issues.
Apart from the inevitable conclusion of the dead overpowering the living, Day is perhaps Romero’s most unpredictable film. The director keeps the audience on their toes from the very beginning with one of the most unexpected, powerful jump scares in the history of horror cinema, ensuring the suspense remains high as you can never guess what’s coming round the next dankly lit corner.
While it’s true that Day does lack the ferocious originality of Night and Dawn (it is the third film in the series after all), its air of unpredictability, unsettling atmosphere, intense human conflicts, and tour de force Grand Guignol ensure the film isn’t a mere retread of familiar ground. On the contrary, Day is an impressive, original film in its own right, and a more than worthy addition to Romero’s Dead series that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated, so it can finally stand proudly alongside its predecessors.
See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.
See our retrospective feature on Dawn of the Dead (1978) >here<.
Director: Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir
Featuring: Woody Vasulka and Steina Vasulka
Words – Natalie Mills
“They’re the shoulders that most video art has stood on.”
An introduction to the weird and wonderful world of video art, this quirky documentary centres on Steina and Woody Vasulka.
A pair of pioneering video artists, who were prominent in the 60s and 70s, they’re introduced as “two of the most important artists of the 21st century”. The Vasulkas inhabited a world where Patti Smith was new in town, Andy Warhol was getting hit on by all genders, and Salvador Dali just casually turned up to theatre performances. The Vasulka Effect feels like part time-capsule, part art history lesson, part reality TV show.
Prepare to feel like you were born in the wrong decade, and to learn that most art repurposes other art. As a (slightly bitter) ex-art student, I connected to Steina’s observation that “humans are more interested in archived, past art than anything that’s happening now”. Indeed, we see the Vasulkas painstakingly archiving their huge body of work, explaining how it’s “now seen as historical and important”.
As someone who “made films” for a bit, it was amazing to be introduced to Woody and Steina. I was reminded of the gut-punch you get as a student, when you think you’ve had a new and interesting idea, that someone back from the 60s or 70s has been doing it for decades. Their work, featuring multi-screen installations, Fantasia-like electronic waves, and image distortion similar to today’s “glitch art”, has aged remarkably well.
Here, the vintage monitors and lo-fi aesthetic you see in many of today’s exhibitions are no stylistic choice. They were being used for the first time. They were fascinated by the mixture between art and technology in a way none of their contemporaries were exploring. Their works weren’t about anything – they were “just like a feeling”. If someone scoffed “But you’re just playing”, they took it as a compliment. Purity, no bullshit needed.
The film gives a vaguely chronological history of the two artists, interspersing archive footage with them bickering cutely in the present day. After getting to know their beginnings – him a Czech film student, her a chamber musician from Iceland – we hear how they ended up living in a loft “in this new thing called Soho”. They lived the kind of free, magical life every art student dreams of (before we inevitably end up in marketing).
There’s a lot of great footage from the 60s; you wonder how Boomers dare criticise anything with all this mad stuff going on in their day. The Vasulkas reminisce about parties, saying “We couldn’t even go to bed, the house was full of people” and “What was this orgy here?” like they’re discussing breakfast.
Surrounded by drag shows, contacted by people “dying to do pornography”, and even noticed by the FBI, they belonged to a community desperate to push boundaries. The Vasulka Effect sometimes feels like a showreel of famous names, but it helps hit home their influence. The couple set up The Kitchen in New York in 1971, as a “home for the homeless, or artists across disciplines”. Still an iconic performance space now, nobody needed an invite – people would just come to them to volunteer their time. Talking Heads, Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson were all Kitchen alumni, alongside artists like Cindy Sherman. “If you believe in electronic music, this is the place” … is it possible to get FOMO 50 years too late?
Living out their twilight years surrounded by obsolete video equipment and debt, in the strangest house you can imagine, the Vasulkas feel like characters in some surreal indie sitcom. You half expect Louis Theroux to walk in at any time. There’s something very open and honest about Woody and Steina – they were so ahead of their time; you get the feeling that they’ve barely had to change their lifestyle in decades.
Their love for analogue tech is charming, cooing “This was an important machine” and “This beautiful turntable” as they wistfully handle old equipment. They seem nostalgic for their past, and you feel nostalgic for it too. From Vaporwave to Stranger Things, my generation is obsessed with old school formats. While at university, it was cool to make films that looked like shitty VHS tapes. I can only assume that it’ll one day be cool to make art about looping DVD menus and the iPod click sound. With the growth of YouTube, obscure, vintage films are now easy to ‘discover’.
Many artists never get discovered the first time around, so it’s a real happy ending to watch Steina and Woody get rediscovered in the 2010s. Despite initial distrust of an interested art dealer, “God spare me this” moans Woody, they cooperate to archive their work and create The Vasulka Chamber. It’s wonderful to see their art being appreciated in Iceland’s National Gallery, where their multi-media installations look fresh as ever.
As the Vasulkas recreate their first meeting in a Prague dorm, and share their first words of “Marry me, get me out of here”, you realise The Vasulka Effect is also a love story. I can’t imagine how hard it was to make their relationship work, being partners in both your personal and ‘art’ lives, in a foreign country in your second language. Their archive is testament to their love of video, and how it can be preserved for everyone.
“We’re showing up in the art magazines” they observe, still humble and playful, as though they don’t realise how important they are.
Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Claire Rushbrook, Alec Secareanu, Sarah White
Words – Denise Hobart
Ammonite imagines a passionate love affair between the self-taught pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning and her friend Charlotte Murchison. Anning’s early nineteenth century achievements were largely obscured, or credited to men, due largely to her sex and poor background. The film is a fictionalised, measured and absorbing exploration of female working class repression and its effect on recognition, confidence and freedom of expression.
We find Kate Winslet’s isolated Mary in a blustery Lyme Regis some years after her most celebrated find has been sold for living expenses and is now displayed in the British Museum. Mary has more in common in appearance with the cleaner at the museum who is barked orders to by an unseen man to make way for her find, than that which a scientist of her accomplishments could expect. Mary’s hand-written label on her fossil find is unceremoniously discarded, to be replaced by that of the wealthy man presenting it, but the filth of the work undertaken to discover and house these prizes credited to men are etched in the women’s fingernails and their worn, dirty clothing.
Mary is living with her gruff, emotionally distant but ever watchful mother and it is a workhorse existence: cold winter nights, early rising to catch the tide and risk injury in landslides in the hunt for fossils through grime, wind and rain, then a return home to domestic and fossil shopkeeping chores. Rare free moments are dedicated to technical drawing, working by candlelight long into the night.
Into this routine barges the wealthy, entitled geologist Roderick Murchison, keen to learn from Mary and bringing in tow his silent and fragile younger wife, Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte. Murchison’s wishes are indulged not out of a desire to share her knowledge – Mary has long since been disillusioned at her exclusion and treatment at the hands of what she terms as the men’s club in London – but due to the much-needed crumb of his wealth that Roderick offers her. Murchison further takes advantage of his financial position when, unwilling to deal personally with his wife’s grief at an unspoken but hinted at loss dismissed by him as melancholia, he leaves her in Lyme Regis to continue overseas alone. Anticipating picking up his fully restored wife once a bit of sea air via daily walks observing Mary has knocked the cheerfulness stuffing back into her, Murchison instead leaves Charlotte to fall seriously ill, requiring the constant care and attention of Mary.
Director Francis Lee creates an amazing sense of place and personal belonging throughout the film. Lyme Regis and the Dorset coastline make for a stunning location but it would be easy to be overwhelmed by its film history, the ghosts of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Persuasion jostling for space on the Cobb. Instead, there is a sense with Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography that you are viewing the place with fresh eyes and that Winslet’s Mary is part of the fabric of her surroundings, ingrained as it is in her hands, her clothes and daily life. Images and sounds of spring see in Charlotte’s recovery and an awakening of sorts begins as the women gradually find solace, an uneasy understanding and passion with each other. The sound design creates a believably authentic sense of atmosphere, a lack of intrusive music giving way instead to a constant scratching at fossils, waves on the shoreline, the crunch of boots on the pebble beach and comfortable silences.
The central performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are the heart of the film and they work assuredly together to steadily create a truthful connection of their characters. Gemma Jones as Molly, a very different type of mother to Winslet than her Mrs Dashwood in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, is wonderful at the centre of some of the most moving scenes as we come to understand more about this seemingly cold matriarch.
The film’s narrative slightly loses its balance towards the end and it somewhat misrepresents the real Charlotte Murchison in terms of age and accomplishment (she had a good decade on Anning and is credited with being instrumental in encouraging her husband’s interest in geology rather than he in hers).
Ammonite is a thoroughly absorbing watch, especially for its central and supporting performances and the evocative sense of place and time. Ultimately, it is not Mary’s sexuality or even her sex that is the chief hinderance to her happiness and progress but her social class. It is the gulf between the two women caused by this difference that becomes the biggest challenge to their understanding of each other.
Featuring a selection of highly anticipated films, the 2020 BFI Film Festival presented online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK.
See our look at some of the films featured at this year’s festival
– click on the film title to see our review.
An absorbing watch, with standout central performances and an evocative sense of place and time.
A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity, POSSESSOR tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Relic blends the haunted house with body horror, in an unnerving story that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax that stays with you long after the film is over.
Though not a biopic in the traditional sense, with a compelling performance in the title role the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing.
BFI Film Festival 2020 trailer
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Considering his lineage, it’s no surprise that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor adheres to certain adjectives: nightmarish; gruesome; visceral and yet strangely delicate, its explosions of violence and corporeal horror all the more unsettling for their intimacy. A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity which cribs perhaps too liberally from the senior Cronenberg’s work, Possessor nonetheless tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Andrea Riseborough is Tas, an assassin who gains access to her targets through possessing the bodies of those closest to them. Working under her enigmatic handler (Leigh), Tas is assigned a job which involves her possessing the body of a young man (Abbott) in order to take out his girlfriend and her mega-rich corporation-owning father (Bean, playing a complete bastard and obviously having some fun with it).
What follows is an insight into an apparently long-brewing personal disintegration; Tas regularly becomes other people and, as such, gradually struggles to be herself. She rehearses how to engage in small talk with her husband and young son; she obsessively analyses her target’s speech patterns ahead of the possession, to more effectively ‘be’ them for a while. Identity is an unstable, slippery, easily fractured thing, and as various complications arise on the job, Tas and the man she has possessed begin to battle for psychic dominance.
Much of the film is a two-hander between Riseborough and Abbott, and both are excellent, conveying much with a change of posture or rearrangement of facial expression. As the film is increasingly swallowed in gory sci-fi horror weirdness, their performances elevate too, becoming all the more unhinged and manic. The cast is fairly small and not a single bad performance is given, but the two principle leads are particularly deserving of attention here.
Possessor skilfully creates an air of seething tension and dread, occasionally punctuated by wince-inducing violence and sequences of fleshy, hallucinogenic horror which feel ripped straight from Videodrome. This is perhaps the film’s biggest issue; as entertaining and well-crafted as Possessor is, watching the film I ultimately couldn’t escape a nagging sense that it is – stylistically and thematically – very similar to the output of the elder Cronenberg. It’s like watching an excellent tribute band who has meticulously studied every facet of their inspiration’s work… but they’re still not quite the real thing. Perhaps, considering the film’s plot, this is appropriate; the spirit or psyche of the father working through the son.
Highfalutin conjecture aside, Possessor is solid, creepy, beautifully composed but ultimately unsurprising. It’s certainly worth the time of any self-confessed body horror/dark sci-fi fan (and no doubt someone’s eventual gateway into said interests), but offers little in the way of surprises. This year, maybe that’s actually something to be thankful for.
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti
Words – Carly Stevenson
The first thing to note about Shirley is that it is not a biopic. At least not in the traditional sense. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on a fictitious scenario involving American novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and a young couple named Fred and Rosie Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman).
The premise is as follows: Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites the Nemsers to stay in their home for a short period while Fred settles into his new teaching post at Bennington College, where Stanley works as a professor.
The film opens with a shot of Rose reading Jackson’s notorious short story ‘The Lottery’ on the train journey to Vermont. Aroused by the macabre tale of civic barbarism, Rose initiates a bathroom rendezvous with Fred. A signal that, beneath her veneer of politeness, Rose is not a conservative housewife. Their fervent lovemaking serves as a sharp contrast to the sterility of Shirley and Stanley’s relationship. Plagued with bouts of depression and writer’s block, Shirley spends hours in bed chain-smoking while Stanley openly pursues other women. He looks after Shirley when she takes a bad turn, but he also infantilises her and relentlessly critiques her work.
Throughout the film, Shirley is presented as co-dependent and volatile. Her only sources of excitement seem to be drinking excessively and misbehaving at social gatherings. At first, Shirley is hostile towards the Nemsers and she conspires with Stanley to make their lives difficult. However, as time passes, she comes to rely on Rose and the two women form an unlikely attachment. Intrigued by Shirley’s writing process, Rose attempts to help Shirley research her new novel, which is inspired by the disappearance of a local girl.
Shirley is set almost entirely within the domestic sphere. There are a few woodland and campus scenes, but for the most part, we are confined inside the house. This location clearly reflects the stifling expectations imposed upon women during this period. Like Shirley and Rose, the audience are hemmed in and forced to endure the monotonous scenery.
Elisabeth Moss gives a compelling performance in the title role. Even when Shirley behaves in a way that is manipulative and callous, we never lose sight of her vulnerability. What is less compelling is the ways in which the film leans into stereotypical notions of neurotic female genius. For some, the name Shirley Jackson is synonymous with the idea of morbid and ‘unhinged’ female creativity (see also: Jackson’s contemporary, Sylvia Plath). It is true that Jackson was reclusive (the word we often give to people who don’t suffer fools gladly); it is also true that she struggled with mental ill health; but she also raised four children whilst earning a living as a prolific writer – a feat that is curiously missing from this portrait.
Nevertheless, the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing well. Rose resembles the haunted women of Jackson’s novels and her crisis at the end of the film is presented as a kind of epiphany rather than a tragic spiral into ‘madness’. In very different ways, both Shirley and Rose eschew the rigid gender expectations of the time and emerge with a greater sense of their own agency.
Director: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Words – Daniel McMonagle
Nothing is more harrowing than experiencing the death of the ones we love. Relic, the feature debut of Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James, blends a haunted house story with body horror to delve into themes of death and decay.
Relic follows a mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who set out to take care of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in her countryside home. At first, Edna is nowhere to be found and Kay and Sam gradually realise that something is very wrong with her. The house has become dilapidated, walls are leaking and rotting, alarming post-it notes are scattered around the house and ominous pounding noises can be heard through the walls.
After a failed search party, Edna finally appears, but she is unable to explain where she has been or why she has suddenly developed a mysterious mark on her chest that starts to grow and spread to the rest of her body. From this point, we are slowly immersed in a world of portentous shapes, creeping mould spores and images of decomposition.
Robyn Nevin expertly performs Edna’s transformation from frightened and confused elderly woman into a violent and unpredictable creature who seems to possess unnatural physical strength. Sam is a warm and likeable character and Bella Heathcote gives a compelling performance as Edna’s grief-stricken granddaughter, but it is Emily Mortimer as Kay who stands out. Mortimer’s performance accurately captures the distressing emotions felt by anyone who has had to witness a loved one become a stranger.
Relic is a slow-paced, unnerving mood piece that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax. The art and production design are a worthy highlight: grotty interiors mixed with eerie diegetic sounds evoke a nauseating sense of place that oozes gothic atmosphere. Edna’s home doesn’t make geographical sense and the hidden corridors, contracting walls and creaky rooms create a pervading sense of claustrophobia throughout. Water constantly leaks and drips, the walls bang and fold into themselves and black mould spreads rapidly as Edna’s condition worsens. The cluttered, volatile and darkening house serves as a visual metaphor for Edna’s deteriorating mind.
There are echoes of Hereditary (which was released whilst Relic was being written) in this intergenerational horror. The film also shares similar themes with The Babadook – in particular, the way in which mental illness is depicted as a type of possession. Moreover, there are echoes of David Cronenberg’s early body horror films, particularly The Brood.
Relic is ultimately an exploration of what we inherit from our families and how we process grief, a metaphor for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The bond between the three generations of women make the ending unusual for a horror film as it moves from terror to empathy, climaxing with a final scene that stays with you long after the film is over.
The BFI Film Festival is the UK’s premiere platform for welcoming international storytellers, featuring a selection of highly anticipated films.
Taking place October 7th – 18th, this year’s festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the festival in different ways.
See the cinemas across the UK taking part in this year’s festival here:
With some truly standout films coming in 2020, see our pick of 5 films to see at the festival and beyond…
The latest feature from Brandon Cronenberg (son of revered director David Cronenberg), Possessor is a sci-fi horror-thriller which garnered widespread praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Following the elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), as brain-implant technology allows her to take control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.
While she holds a special gift for the work, her experiences have caused a dramatic change in her, and as her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, as she soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.
From director Chloe Zhao, whose feature film The Rider stood out as one of the best films of 2018, Nomadland explores life outside conventional society.
Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring life through the vast landscape of the American West.
Adapted from the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film features real nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration of the vast expanse of the Western United States.
Director Bassam Tariq’s debut fiction feature, stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One), drawing from his own musical background and British-Pakistani roots to deliver a personal performance in a film about a fierce MC on the cusp of a major tour and commercial success, whose dreams of global fame are cut-down by an autoimmune disease.
A sharp examination of cultural heritage, identity politics, family and the impact of physical illness, Mogul Mowgli is an honest evocation of the British-Asian experience.
The Opening Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival, ‘Mangrove’ from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Widows, Shame) is the true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who were arrested for leading the protest and changed British history by taking a stand against racial discrimination.
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill doubled as a community centre for Black Londoners, as police brutality and harassment intensified, the Mangrove also became a site of resistance, leading to a historic protest against police harassment.
‘Mangrove’ is one of five Small Axe films by Steve McQueen.
From Francis Lee, director of the phenomenal God’s Own Country, Ammonite is the Closing Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival.
In the 1840s, acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis.
As Mary is entrusted to care for a young woman dealing with a personal tragedy, she clashes with her unwanted guest, as the two women inhabit utterly different worlds.
Yet despite the differences in their social spheres and personalities, the two discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for, as they develop an intense relationship altering both of their lives forever.
See the full programme and browse through this year’s feature films here:
screening details can be found on each title page.
The entire BFI Film Festival Short Film Programme will be free to watch on BFI Player, you can see the programme here: