Festival du Film Britannique de Dinard, 6-10 October 2010
My first day at the 21st British film festival enabled me to catch a film part-funded by Film4 which won the special jury prize here two years ago. Boy A (2008), directed by John Crowley, stars Peter Mullan as Terry, a probation officer charged with protecting the new identity given to a child killer (played by the excellent Andrew Garfield) on his release from prison. Whilst the trajectory of the plot (with the inevitable media exposé of Jack Burridge’s real identity) is a little laboured, the fine performances and the sensitive approach to a problematic social issue made all too real by the recent re-conviction of the released Jamie Bulger killer John Venables, give the film genuine gravitas. Whilst in this film our sympathies for Jack (whose minor role in the original crime is clearly established in flashback) are never seriously questioned, a more clearly culpable hero might have thrown up more provocative moral dilemmas about the problems of rehabilitating serious child offenders. Excellent support from Katie Lyons as the girlfriend whose love might have carried Jack through, and Shaun Evans as the real son Terry neglects because of his professional commitments.
Also ran: In this year’s competition Mr Nice (Bernard Rose, 2010) stars Rhys Ifans as drug baron turned cult hero Howard Marks, with hilarious support from David Thewlis as an IRA commander. Ifans is never anything less than charming, and HM Customs never better than inept, until Marks’ multi-million dollar enterprise runs up against an Interpol operation which brings him to justice. Incarceration, and the neglect of his loyal wife (Chloe Sevigny) and family, sit uneasily, in the last phase of the adventure, with Marks’ dubious heroic status.
Tolstoy: The Last Autumn (Michael Hoffman, 2010) – a sumptuous period drama showcasing outstanding performances from Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who both received Academy nominations at this year’s Oscars. I spoke with producer Chris Curling about the location shoot in East Germany and the problems of titling the film for the American market. They had been advised that anything with Tolstoy in the title would be anathema to US popular tastes. So although Tolstoï, le dernier automne is the French title under which it was screened here in Dinard, in English it is called, somewhat evasively, The Last Station. Nonetheless, such foibles take nothing away from the fine acting and epic stature of this film – an aesthetic delicacy amidst the diet of bland social realism and cosy British comedy.
Film 4 also backed Chris Morris’ first feature film Four Lions (2010), about an inept jihadist cell in Manchester planning a suicide attack. Its producer, Mark Herbert, advised the majority French audience that this black comedy might make you laugh, but might also make you wonder whether you should laugh or not. Such warnings perhaps now seem unnecessary to those audiences more familiar with Morris’ taboo-breaking work, for the combination of political satire and humour teeters, characteristically, on the tight-rope of political correctness. Doubtless some Muslims will find the buffoonish caricatures that serve as the main protagonists as offensive as the plot is absurd, perhaps with justification. Yet in the process Morris exposes prejudices on all sides about the Islamic terrorist threat. My main complaint, and the reason why the political critique is ultimately self-defeating, is that it is not funny. So I was never troubled about whether or not to laugh; I only wish it had made me!
Stuart Hazeldine’s debut feature Exam (2010), like Four Lions, made its French premiere here at Dinard. A deceptively simple, yet taut, psychological thriller, it features eight young competitors in an exam devised as a recruitment exercise for a major pharmaceutical firm who are researching the cure for a deadly pandemic virus. As the invigilator warns, ‘There is only one question, and only one answer will do…’. Deciphering the question on their blank exam papers proves more difficult than the All Souls exam, and involves the candidates in a gruelling fight to the death. This suspenseful drama unfolds in real time, and for the duration of its 85 minutes never fails to hold the attention: a chamber piece worthy of Sartre, from whom screenwriter/director Hazeldine draws his inspiration. Luke Mably, Chuk Iwuji and Natalie Cox head a committed cast.
Also in competition this year was Mat Whitecross’s excellent Ian Dury biopic Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, featuring an outstanding performance from Andy Serkis (who not only provides a never-less-than-convincing portrait of the late Dury, but also re-recorded all the songs for the film with the legendary Blockheads). The other entrants in an unusually strong field included Nick Whitfield’s surreal comic debut Skeletons, and Jamie Thraves’ Treacle Jr. Meanwhile, the film strongly tipped to win the Golden Hitchcock is Nigel Cole’s affectionate account of the equal pay for women campaigners, Made in Dagenham. Amusingly, the film was retitled for French release, We Want Sex (from the celebrated news photograph of the campaign banner). This alone ensured the French audiences queued around the block at every screening. Finally, another strong musical contender for the top prize comes in form of Soulboy, directed by Shimmy Marcus. Eleven years in the making, this sensitive evocation of legendary 70s Northern Soul club the Wigan Casino, as seen through the eyes of teenager Joe McCain (played by the athletic and charismatic Martin Compston), is a triumph of determination and belief on the part of its producer Christine Alderson. Ultimately the central love story (between Compston and Felicity Jones) dominates the exploration of this celebrated sub-culture, but there’s still enough Adidas hand-luggage, vintage vinyl and flairs to make this an infectious tribute to that historic cult.
Saturday 9th October. And the winners are…Perhaps predictably Made in Dagenham won the people’s competition, while the jury, which included Sienna Miller and Nick Moran, were divided between Nigel Cole’s film and Treacle Jr. Mr Nice (starring Sienna’s Ex, the nice Mr Ifans) won the Kodak prize for cinematography, though it’s hard to call it visually striking. And praise for the best screenplay was deservedly shared between Made in Dagenham and Exam. So, in the best tradition of these things, Made in Dagenham (or rather We Want Sex) swept the board, but not entirely…!
Finally, there was a welcome retrospective of the work of Barney Platts-Mills, who was in Dinard to present his fourth feature (and first since 1982’s Hero), Zohra, A Moroccan Fairy Tale (2010). And the festival also paid tribute to the multi-talented Peter Mullan, featuring eight films including Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe (1998), David McKenzie’s Young Adam (2003), John Crowley’s Boy A (2008), his own directorial triumph The Magdalene Sisters (2003), and his latest film, Neds, backed by Film4. Mullan was in attendance and in conversation. Also on the red carpet was Lesley Manville, representing Film4’s latest Mike Leigh production, Another Year. Until another year, from Dinard, it’s au revoir.
Justin Smith 10/10/10