The 60th London Film Festival kicks off with a devastating perspective on grief, sapphic lust, nomadic dissonance, and a documentary steeped in cinematic history.

After just one day at the BFI’s 60th London Film Festival, the bar for quality has been set, and it’s very high indeed. 9am bled into 3pm, which bled into 9pm – 12 hours of film (with very small breaks in between) and rarely a moment passed that wasn’t engaging on some level. My selections were as daringly contrasting as today’s programme would allow, proving that emotional and narrative whiplash is entirely possible.

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It was with great pleasure that the first film of the festival was the increasingly imaginative A Monster Calls (A-): an instant classic that, if audiences react as justly as those in my screening, will become required viewing for all, both young and old. It’s a truly heartfelt adaptation that carries a devastatingly powerful message. Lewis McDougall is wonderfully cast in the lead as Conor O’Malley: a bullied youngster living with his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones in an affectionate career best) who invents a monster (voiced with perfect cadence by Liam Neeson) to repel his impending maturity. It’s not without minor stumbles – specifically the lack of characterisation with the school bullies – but when it hits, it aims true. J.A. Bayona’s handling of Patrick Ness’ novel is done with unwavering sympathy and exudes unmitigated love in every scene that, by the end, even the steeliest of person will be whimpering home.

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From this emotionally organic drama, I was fully unprepared for Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden (A-). Audaciously genre-fusing, this  brilliantly loopy plot loosely concerns Min-hee Kim’s Lady Hidiko hiring a new handmaiden to keep her company in her vast, isolated estate in 1930s Japan. On first glance everything seems to be bubbling at the surface, grasping you with a comic introduction and slowly deceiving you as more details of the plot are revealed. Nothing is ever as it seems. Chan-Wook transposed his story from Sarah Waters’ original Victorian England setting, meticulously arranging and staging this constantly surprising guessing game to echo his debauched, anarchic style. Its erotic is only ever gratuitous when it’s aiming for suppressed, awkward laughter, and every genre it tackles is grabbed in all the right places with sumptuous cinematography and elegant outfits to match. It’s hard to fully grasp its oddities on first watch, so I can’t wait to watch it again.

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Third of the day was Andrea Arnold’s latest American Honey (B-), which captured me with a stunningly realistic attention to her character’s wandering pursuit of a dream. At 165 minutes it definitely drags and outstays its welcome, like a particularly aggressive or overbearing partygoer. Regardless, everyone in front Arnold’s camera is completely enchanting: every teen is played with surprising authenticity, and their conversation is as though you’re witnessing a documentary rather than a narrative drama. Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) has a chance encounter with Jake (Shia LeBeouf) in a parking lot, and after a brief minute of persuasion she takes an offer to travel through the Midwest with him and his crew: a gang of similarly despondent youths making money through door-to-door magazine sales, partying, and living life on their simple terms. Arnold has an ability to wring poetry out of simple, naturalistic shots which feel as though they were captured in a bubble, never to be replicated, and this goes some way to making its protracted fiction that little bit more acceptable.

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I took a last minute chance on Dawson City: Frozen Time (B+) and I’m very pleased that I did. This documentary – created with footage from approximately 500 silent movies of which were either fire-damaged, lost, or buried in permafrost – forms a brand new, true-life found footage movie that tells the fascinatingly rich history of Dawson City: an ever-shrinking settlement in the Canadian territory of Yukon. Starting in the 1890s during the Klondike Goldrush, and finishing in present day during the discovery below ground, it’s a century old project that touches on historical details such as the Red Sox Scandal of 1919 and the introduction of ‘talkies’ in the early 1930s in a truly extraordinary way.

The next eleven days have a lot to live up to if they’re to beat this very rewarding first day, and if I’m proved correct that it can only get better from here, you can expect an unseasonable amount of positivity from me!

A Monster Calls illustration header by cal.con
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