Gilbey on Film: the London Film Festival

Our film critic chooses five titles to look out for next month.

Public booking for the London Film Festival (which runs from 13 - 28 October) opens next Monday. Most of the big gala screenings will have been snapped up by BFI members, who will have been booking since 15 September, but that's ok because they're all about the hoopla anyway. I'm not pretending for a second that I am not as excited as anyone to see eye-catching marquee titles such as Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro's subtly devastating novel, Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller Black Swan, which received ecstatic reviews at the Venice Film Festival, or Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, about the mountain climber Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), who had to do something very nasty indeed to save his own life. The trick with the latter film will be to keep from counting the number of walk-outs and pass-outs during the grisly bits.

But these are the headline-grabbers that attract valuable attention for the LFF; they already have distributors and release dates in place. The real treasures are buried deeper in the programme and are, as ever, a matter of pot luck. I'm slightly perturbed by the return this year to the bad old days of padding out the festival with titles that are mere minutes away from being released. When you've been a student slashing your weekly food budget so you can afford LFF tickets, it's rather galling to then find that the films you've booked to see at inflated cost are opening within a few days of being screened at the festival. Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right is well worth seeing, but it's crazy that it is released just two days after its last festival showing. Perhaps in future the LFF brochure could, where possible, list release dates alongside the enticing blurbs for each title, to avoid near-overlaps such as Africa United (opening two days after its final LFF slot), The Arbor (four days), Olivier Assayas's Carlos "the Jackal" film, Carlos (six days) and Mike Leigh's Another Year (two weeks).

For the Surprise Film, my money this year is on either Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock, which shifts the action of Graham Greene's novel to the 1960s, or Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, another hotel-based study of an actor's loneliness (like her reputation-making Lost in Translation), which won the Golden Lion at Venice earlier this month. Then again, the festival might buck the trend of giving the Surprise Film platform to an English-language title, and go instead for Francois Ozon's Potiche, a reputedly breezy farce starring Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, which was widely declared a crowd-pleaser at Venice.

In the mean time, here are five titles that I will be seeking out. And that's as near as I'm willing to get to any guarantee of quality:

Treacle Jr - The third film from The Low Down's Jamie Thraves is the story of a man who walks out on his family, and is befriended by a misfit and his girlfriend. The excellent Aiden Gillen stars.

Meek's Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt has proved herself an insightful and elliptical filmmaker with Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy; this wagon-train drama, set in 1845 Oregon, is rumoured to be her finest yet.

A Screaming Man - From Mahamat-Salah Haroun, director of Abouna and Daratt, a tale of father/son tensions in present-day Chad.

Aurora - Five years ago, Cristi Puiu came to international attention with his grim, funny and affecting fable-cum-satire, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. His new film is a tense character study in which -- like fellow art-house new-wavers Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates) and Rafi Pitts (The Hunter) -- the director is also his own leading man.

Self Made - Gillian Wearing is the latest British artist to turn to cinema. Early reports about her debut -- the result of a newspaper advert asking "If you were to play a part in a film, would you be yourself or a fictional character?" -- are overwhelmingly positive.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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