A guide to the London Film Festival

James Oliver 5 October 2021

The UK's biggest film festival promises an array of fantastical and hard-hitting popcorn crunchers this year

Blimey, is it time for the London Film Festival (LFF) again? It only seems like yesterday that they were boasting about screening Nomadland.

But here we are. After last year's necessarily slimmed down selection, we return to a full-fat menu, with galas, guests and goodness knows what else.

With so much to get your teeth into—it IS the biggest film festival in the UK, after all—we thought we'd help out with a short guide to just some of the things you can look forward to...

The Return of the Western!

The festival opens with a flick called The Harder They Fall. Not to be confused with Humphrey Bogart's final film (or a sequel to a certain Jimmy Cliff classic), this one sees Idris Elba getting his John Wayne on as an outlaw being hunted by Jonathan Majors (off of Lovecraft Country).

Elsewhere, Benedict “Bendy” Cumberbatch is also making his home on the range as a cattle baron who has “beef” (geddit?) with his brother in The Power of the Dog. That synopsis might promise a Sam Peckinpah-style celebration of violent masculinity but since it's directed by Jane Campion, that seems unlikely. Bah.

On Tour!

The LFF might indeed be “the biggest film festival in the UK” but that's a fat lot of good if you live in, say, Lutterworth since the festival, per its name, is based in London. However, the organisers are at least trying to do something about it, with some—if not quite enough—of the screenings being streamed on the BFI player and others being shown in actual cinemas around the country.

If the good folk of Lutterworth don't mind a bit of a trek, they can catch things like The Harder They Come, The Power of the Dog and much else besides at the Warwick Arts Centre, a mere half hour away; elsewhere, residents of Belfast, Newcastle and Edinburgh can also share the spoils, without having to venture into the Great Wen itself, and other venues are available too. Check local press for details, as they say. Or just go on the internet. That's probably easier, actually.

"Some—if not quite enough—of the screenings are being streamed on the BFI player and others being shown in actual cinemas around the country"

The Telly!

We hear a lot from people who reckon television programmes are almost as good as “the movies” these days. They're wrong, but LFF organisers seem to have taken this view on board as they've dedicated several showings to what are unmistakably TV shows.

In advance of its airing on the idiot box, you can catch episodes of Succession, as well as things from around the world—French supernatural-or-science-fiction drama The Rope; an Australian thing about their bushfires with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title of Fires and most intriguingly, Hellbound, a demonic drama from Korea, directed—according to the LFF website—by the chap behind the thoroughly excellent Train to Busan. That had better show up on BBC 4, is all I'm saying.

Rule, Britannia!

Appropriately for “the biggest film festival in the UK” there are very many British films screening here. The biggest is probably Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar “Shaun of the Dead” Wright, but in a more just world, the hottest ticket would be The Souvenir Part 2, Joanna Hogg's sequel to her semi-autobiographical original. That was one of the best films—from anywhere—in recent years, so there's a certain expectation.

Additionally, Clio Barnard has a new film, and since she previously made The Arbor, her Ali & Ava is definitely worth a look. Terence Davies comes back with Benediction, a biopic about one-time war poet Siegfried Sassoon while, more crowd-pleasingly, The Phantom of the Open has Mark Rylance getting his teeth into a script by Simon Farnaby (Ghosts, Paddington) as “the world's worst golfer”. Also, a shout out to The Feast, aka Gwledd, about a dinner party that does not go according to plan. Welsh language horror? Yes please!

The Oscar trail!

The LFF has positioned itself as one of the buzz-building stops on the road to the Oscars. This year has an especially lively crop. Most obviously is Belfast, Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical ode to his home-town, which has already proved a hit with audiences at other festivals. You shouldn't rule out The Tragedy of Macbeth either, directed by Joel Coen (without his brother), with Denzel Washington as the titular regicide and Frances McDormand—Mrs Coen and multiple Oscar winner—as the missus.

Then there's The Lost Daughter, directed by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal from a book by Elena Ferrante with our own—our very own—Olivia Colman tipped for more Oscar glory, although she's going to face stiff competition from Kristen Stewart as Princess Di in Spencer, director Pablo Larraín's follow on from his earlier Jackie. Also on the look out for a little gold statuette is Will Smith; he's represented in London by King Richard, playing the father of Venus and Serena Williams: just think, when he wins his Oscar, you can say you saw the film before (nearly) everyone else!

European excellence!

American films will dominate the coverage but dig a bit deeper and we find many major European directors bringing their films to town. Mia Hansen-Løve, for instance: she's going to be showing Bergman Island, a twin-pronged tribute to Ingmar Bergman. It's set on Faro, where Bergman settled, and it concerns one of his recurrent subjects: the breakdown of a relationship.

Paul Verhoeven is a provocateur to his fingertips, so a story about saucy nuns is well up his alley: it's called Benedetta. Rather more gentle is Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World, essentially a charming rom-com that made many friends at Cannes. A title like The Hand of God is obviously a provocation in London, but this isn't (exactly) a film about Diego Maradona; it's a semi-autobiographical film by Paulo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) about growing up in Naples during the time the flawed Argentine genius played there.

Finally there's The French Dispatch. Wes Anderson is not European, the money came from America but since he seems to feel so at home in the old world, it seems kindest to mention him here.

Cocking a snook at the nazis!

One of the strongest strands of the LFF has always been their restorations and rediscoveries. Amongst this year's selection is a pip: Europa is a film that no one has seen in near enough 90 years. It's an anti-fascist avant-garde film from Poland that was confiscated by the Third Reich and presumed destroyed.

However, a copy survived. So it's been spruced up with lots of digital jiggery-pokery and sent back out into the wild, so it can be seen as nature intended. That's one in the eye for Adolf!

Assorted irregularities!

Surely the glory of any film festival is finding things that sit outside the conventional world of the multiplex, and so it is here. Consider What We Shared: not one of the high profile titles at the festival, the programme promises “fragmented memories and dreams” […] “exhumed through interpretive re-enactment and haunting sound.”  So it's unlikely to be confused with The Fast & The Furious: F9 but maybe that's... a good thing? The only way to find out is to give it a whirl.

Ditto Red Rocket (Sean “The Florida Project” Baker's latest), or Memoria, the new one from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who gave us Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Titane took the Palme d'Or at Cannes, so it has more of a profile, but it did not win universal support and even its admirers called Julie Ducournau’s (Raw) film “a bit odd”.

If nothing else, the festival provides a vital platform for films to be seen and appreciated. And after the last 18 months, that's more important than ever—so get out there and show some support.

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