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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.