The LFF Blog: Day One
Dave Calhoun spills the beans on this year's opening-night shenanigans at the 51st Times BFI London film festival in the very first of a series of exclusive blogs
Sore heads are being nursed in Time Out towers this morning after the London Film Festival launched last night with a screening of Cronenberg's 'Eastern Promises' in Leicester Square and a crowded party afterwards at Cubitt's Yard in Covent Garden.
As exclusively predicted here on Tuesday night, Anthony Minghella – the chairman of the BFI – took the opportunity of the festival's opening ceremony to announce to the crowd that the government has awarded the BFI a much-needed grant of £25 million to restore the crumbling National Film and Television Archive in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, which was the subject of a Time Out investigation only this summer. The past year has seen a lot of criticism and doom-mongering both inside and outside of the BFI, so it was clear that Minghella was relishing the chance to deliver a positive story to the public and to the gathered great and good of the film industry. Not everyone, though, was listening intently: Paul Trijbits, ex-head of the New Cinema Fund at the UK Film Council (the BFI's parent body) clearly couldn't be bothered to put away his BlackBerry while Minghella was speaking.
The good news out, Minghella then took a press cutting from his pocket and read to a packed Odeon Leicester Square an extract of a press article that spoke of in-fighting among the board of governors at the BFI, a chairman who was always absent from critical meetings, empty houses at the NFT, and a chronic shortage of funds at the organisation. The cinema went completely quiet. Was Minghella, who steps down as chairman of the BFI at Christmas, already demob happy? At which point he revealed that he was reading from a newspaper article from 1979. The point being that recent rumours of the BFI's death are greatly exaggerated – and always have been.
Speeches followed from BFI director Amanda Nevill, festival artistic director Sandra Hebron and the editor of the Times, Robert Thomson, before Hebron called Cronenberg to the stage, fresh from a two-month promotional tour for 'Eastern Promises'. The man looked exhausted, and there was definitely a lack of energy in the air as he called Vincent Cassel, Naomi Watts and the film's producers to the stage. The film wasn't shot in London, at all, joked the director of 'Crash' and 'A History of Violence' – but any residents of Prague should be able to spot a few familiar locations if they're vigilant. At least one person in the crowd took Cronenberg's word at face value, later telling me with a crestfallen look at the party: 'I was a bit disappointed that the film wasn't actually made in London.' Does that person think there's an identical Thames Barrier and Canary Wharf in the Czech Republic then?
My colleague Wally Hammond has already reviewed 'Eastern Promises' elsewhere , but let me add to his words only by saying that the film is a very ordinary thriller – a serious, well-intentioned, occasionally arresting and sometimes impressive thriller – but ordinary nonetheless. The entire film spins on a reveal that does nothing to intensify your relationship with the story: a yarn about Russian mafia in London whose rituals are revealed to us by an inquisitive nurse (Watts) who finds the diary of a dead teenage prostitute during her shift at a hospital. I don't want to be too down on the film – it features an incredible fight-scene in a sauna and has some great moments of bloody terror – but its tone is all over the place and Steven Knight's script only reminds me how similarly flawed was his work on Stephen Frears' 'Dirty Pretty Things'. He seems to be a writer who does sterling levels of research and inquiry and then blows it all by attaching genre conventions to the finished article.
At the party afterwards, opinions were mixed on the film, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that the next two weeks herald an impressive line-up for the festival, from Andrew Dominik's 'The Assassination of Jesse James' to Todd Haynes' 'I'm Not There' and with guests from Michael Moore to Tom Cruise to Wes Anderson coming to town.
The real beauty, though, is in the discovery, so here's encouraging everyone to seek out a film of which you've never heard, to stay for a Q+A with an unknown director from a far-flung state, and to take pot-luck with the programme. Judging by our reviews so far, there's the usual strong programming behind the event and Hebron and her team have applied assiduous judgement to the hundreds of films that they view across the world.
Personally, I'm curious to see what comes of the publicity cock-up that's so far been attached to Robert Redford's 'Lions for Lambs'. The film, which stars Cruise, Redford and Meryl Streep, was picked as the Times Gala at the festival before barely anyone had seen it. Critics were first shown the film last week but then gagged without prior warning from writing anything about the film's quality on pain of legal action. Critics are already fuming that they've been mistreated. I haven't seen it, but of those who have, the majority tell me that it's bad. I'll reserve my judgement, of course, until I see the film on Monday night.
Come back every day during the festival for more news, reviews and gossip . . .
Author: Dave Calhoun
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