Gilbey on film: the London Film Festival

A round-up of the best and the worst moments from this year's LFF.

The London Film Festival is moving into its last few days; the Surprise Movie is now behind us (it turned out to be the new Brighton Rock: I'd say "I told you so" if everyone else hadn't guessed it too); and now I have that familiar end-of-festival feeling that the grass must have been greener in Screen 5. Hannah Rothschild, whose candid documentary Mandelson: the Real PM? was programmed ahead of its television debut next month, correctly describes the festival experience as being "a bit like looking through the window of a very delicious restaurant". Not that the kitchens have closed yet: at the time of writing, there are still tickets available for screenings including Somewhere, another film-star-hiding-out-in-a-hotel movie from Sofia "Lost in Translation" Coppola; Gregg Araki's riotous Kaboom; the Indian coming-of-age drama Udaan; and Rothschild's film, which offers, among other things, the spectacle of Peter Mandelson in his underwear (rumours that the BBFC is demanding more cuts than the coalition government remain as yet unfounded).

Many of the movies screened -- including Never Let Me Go, Another Year, Let Me In and 127 Days -- will be discussed at greater length in the NS in the coming weeks and months. For now, here are some of my highlights and lowlights from this year's LFF.

Film of the festival

I've already praised on this site the Argentinean documentary The Peddler, about an avuncular 67-year-old director who travels from town to town, making a new amateur epic wherever he stops. A month after seeing it, I'm still smiling at its affectionate evocation of that incurable condition known as movie love.

Star of the Festival

No contest -- it has to be the hypnotic newcomer Conor McCarron in Peter Mullan's Neds, a punchy if sometimes undisciplined 1970s-set story of Glaswegian gangs. McCarron plays the aggressively intelligent teenager John McGill, who goes from class swot to rampaging tough-nut in a matter of years. The young actor has a gift for stillness and for playing introspection without making his emotions inaccessible; he also has a great, Cagney-esque baby face and a chin like a boxing glove.

Biggest disappointment

It would be unfortunate enough to find yourself sitting through It's Kind of a Funny Story under any circumstances. That this soft-pedalling, self-consciously zany comedy about a teenager's week on an adult psychiatric ward should be written and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden only lends the experience an air of tragedy. Going from the heights of Half Nelson and Sugar to what is essentially a big-screen episode of Scrubs feels nothing like a funny story to me. And I don't have much time for the school of thought, found at IFC.com, which argues that "we . . . shouldn't hold [the directors] to a standard higher than they held themselves to." That sounds suspiciously like: "They never intended to make a great movie, so let's not pillory them because they settled for mediocre."

Most surprising soundtrack

There is no shortage of unexpected treats in Love Like Poison, a delicately played drama of sexual awakening, and I'll delve more deeply into those when the film opens next year. But its folk-oriented soundtrack deserves a special mention for making it possible to hear "Greensleeves" as if for the first time and for incorporating the stunning choral version of Radiohead's "Creep", last heard on the trailer for The Social Network.

The "Close but no Lurpak" award for least persuasive sex scene

What Last Tango in Paris did for butter, the rather earnest French partner-swapping drama Happy Few fails completely to do for a giant bag of flour. Whey-faced and grabbing hungrily at one another's limbs, the actors resemble nothing so much as the undead in a George A Romero zombie flick.

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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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories