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American Honey – BFI London Film Festival


No one makes films like Andrea Arnold and as her latest, American Honey, receives its premiere at the London Film Festival it’s hard to believe it’s only her fourth, so firmly has she carved her niche as a creator of beautifully-made stories of real working class life. Unlike so many ‘Hollywood-ised’ versions of urban poverty, there’s no sheen of glamour on the people Arnold focuses on, no designer dirt, just an honest account of what you would see in millions of homes, brought to the screen predominantly by a cast of unknown actors who bring a raw vitality to Arnold’s work.

Back in 2009, Arnold burst onto our radar with the astonishing Fish Tank, one of those rare occasions when a film unexpectedly knocks you sideways and lingers in your consciousness. Her tale of a feisty yet vulnerable teenager, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who dreams of becoming a dancer but fettered by her Essex council estate upbringing gets involved with her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor, who ambiguously sits somewhere between a father-figure and a predator (Michael Fassbender). It is an extraordinary film about the particular difficulties of being a young girl growing-up thinking she’s an adult but still a child in many ways, of the vulnerability and invincibility of being a teenager, and finding out who you are.

In her first US-based film, Arnold’s American Honey covers similar themes but with an equally absorbing and epic examination of the challenges of growing up with deprivation and want. At its heart is an exceptional performance by newcomer Sasha Lane who’s kind-hearted, yet strong protagonist Star exposes her vulnerability through a series of reckless escapades. Abandoning her home where she is the primary carer for her much younger sister and brother, while enduring the groping attentions of her step-father, Star spontaneously choses a life on the road with a rag-tag bunch of fellow teens selling magazine-subscriptions for a shady operator named Krystal. Along the way Star falls for senior seller, and Krystal’s supposed lover, Jake, while taking crazy risks to ensure she doesn’t get left behind.

Arnold’s film is a near three hour marathon that, after a brief scene-setting section about Star’s life, follows the group as they move around the south trying to find new markets to offload their wares. As ever with Arnold, the surroundings are pretty grim as the characters move from sleazy motel to sleazy motel, mixing with truckers, Christian middle class home-owners and oil plantation workers in a vision of small-town America that feels real and visceral. It’s never preachy though and like Fish Tank before it, American Honey takes an almost documentary approach to cataloguing the way in which people live, from grimy bedrooms strewn with trashy clothes to homes years-deep in grease and urban decay.

Yet the tone of the film is actually quite optimistic, hopeful and at times even aspirational as Star and her new friends enjoy a sense of freedom being on the road and a wide-eyed enjoyment of the constant newness of the world they experience by being part of this group. By drawing attention to these lives Arnold is actually reminding us that for all the media condescension both in the US and the UK, working class lives are as rich and filled with the same kinds of humanity as any other. Seeing this story through Star’s eyes allows the audience to experience these emotions with her, recognising how normal and rounded they are – from the pain of first love, to the fear of striking out alone and the satisfaction of beginning to find a way forward. And while it may be a long journey, Arnold’s intimate film uses this epic scale to show us that experiences are relative, and vary in personal significance.

Sasha Lane was one of Arnold’s random discoveries and her performance reveals how close to her real life upbringing American Honey is. In a sense, it picks up where Fish Tank finished to consider the consequences of a young girl abandoning the safe and familiar for a life of unknown self-reliance – in essence a coming-of-age tale. Star is a fascinating mix of contradictions, as many 18 year olds are, and having partially raised her siblings, she has a caring and responsible streak that becomes important as the story unfolds. Frequently we see her rescuing and releasing trapped insects – a nice metaphor for her own character situation – offering them a freedom she also craves. But this sense of right is often concealing an enormous vulnerability that allows others to take advantage of her. It is testament to Lane’s layered and impressive performance that Star is seemingly unaware of her own weakness, often recklessly going off with strangers so certain is she that she’ll make a sale, but with little regard for her physical safety. That idea of teenage invincibility is convincingly played and spending three hours with her the audience becomes convinced that, like Mia, she will always be fine.

Arnold also specialises in highly ambiguous male characters, and even at the end you’re never quite sure whether Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is a good guy or not. The only major star name in the film, Jake is Krystal’s number 2, training the new recruits and possibly sleeping with the boss. What develops between Jake and Star is initially a tender love story, as the old-hand is drawn both to her innocence and her willingness to criticise his sales technique. Yet at every turn, Arnold throws obstacles in the way to subvert expectation, never letting Star or us know whether Jake genuinely wants her, or is casually taking advantage. We hear repeatedly from Krystal that he’s also sleeping with her, but Arnold never visually confirms this either way, allowing us to understand Star’s confusion. LaBeouf keeps us guessing and his famous presence never overwhelms or detracts from the freshness of the remaining cast which is a valuable achievement.

The wider group are also a mix of newcomers and famous grandchildren (including Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) but their numerous scenes in the van have the comradely and frustrating feel of endless journeys, as they sing along to music the cast selected themselves, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally have a good time. And while none of them are drawn distinctly, in many ways this is a group of strays, like the random pets they acquire along the way, unwanted and unloved, clinging together for solidarity. Their leader Krystal is superbly played by Riley Keough who ruthlessly recruits and uses lost kids to make money for her scheme, much of which she appears to spend on clothes and beauty products while her exploited team sleep in one room and are forced to fight each other if they generate the least sales. Keough, a little older than her charges, is a brutal presence, happy to sell an idea of their flesh if it will make money and intent on keeping them down, while, as a warped mother-figure, ensuring they look to her for sustenance.

While much of the film takes us through cities and towns, the contrast of these urban environments with nature is ever-present. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lingers on shots of butterflies on flowers, or vast open fields swaying in the breeze, while the way he captures light gives everything a vibrancy that is beautiful and engaging. Throughout the soundtrack is a mix of thumping rap beats with more introspective sounds that add poignancy, joy and sensitivity at crucial points.

As I said at the start, no one makes films like Andrea Arnold, and American Honey is a phenomenal piece of work that leaves an impact long after the credits role. It will remind you of the pain of growing up and how difficult that transition to adulthood was, while emphasising that everyone feels that way regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Some may grumble at the length, but despite momentary lapses it is a compelling and beautifully told account of lives we still so rarely see on screen.

American Honey was previewed at the BFI London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 14 October in the UK. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Suffragette – London Film Festival

This is a film about betrayal – political, national and personal. And, as you’d expect, it’s also about sacrifice; sacrifice of family, of social standing, of safety, sacrifice of body and of life. The story of the Suffragettes may, a hundred years later, seem inevitable but in 1912-13, when women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote for 50 years, it was anything but. A right that nowadays is so fundamentally accepted by both sexes that many choose not to even exercise it is shown in Abi Morgan’s film to be incredibly hard-won.

It is of course London Film Festival time and in the next 10 days hundreds of films will be screened all over London, showing movies from across the world ranging from tiny indie flicks to major Hollywood premieres. This October is a big film month for me, for once pushing the theatre aside; it began with the incomparable Macbeth and will end with the simulcast Spectre on the 26th. In between is the Film Festival, probably my favourite time of year, which this year will include films such as Carol, Truth, Black Mass, High Rise and Steve Jobs.

But first up was Suffragette and you should not let the period setting fool you, this is brutal film that covers a short period in which women who campaigned for the right to vote turned to more militant tactics to get noticed. It was very much a man’s world before the First World War in industrial, political and domestic circles so even getting the media to take Suffragettes seriously and report their activity was difficult. This eye-opening film shows their attempt to increase awareness of their cause through increasingly violent tactics, building up to the famous death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby which, as this film argues, finally made women’s suffrage front page news.

But Morgan adroitly chooses a domestic approach to this story and while the famous figures of Davison and the Pankhurst waft through, it is ordinary working-class women in the East End who are the focus – a decision which both helps the audience to identify the contemporary relevance of this cause and veers away from the ‘great men of history’ approach which often wrongly ascribe significant change to the influence of a single individual. In this case, Emmeline Pankhurst was the inspiration but it was thousands of ordinary women of all classes who coordinated the protests. So we follow Maud, a fictional laundress, who finds herself accidentally drawn into the movement whose initial reluctance and fear of social humiliation amongst her community is contrasted by how much more radical she becomes than some of the original members.

Carey Mulligan gives a complex performance as the struggling Maud, and is particularly affecting when describing the real hardship women of her class experienced, without education and often working from the age of 7, enduring long hours, grinding poverty and unpleasant attention from their bosses. One of the most interesting things Mulligan shows us is just how long Maud has endured her second-class citizen role, clinging only to her happy family life with fellow-laundry worker husband (Ben Whishaw) and child, but that the movement gives her a clarity about her position and hope for something more. It’s incredibly moving at times as she sacrifices her happiness for the cause and there is a particularly heart-breaking moment that will have many audience members judging her decision before asking themselves tricky questions about whether they would do the same thing for such an important cause. But Mulligan shows us that Maud comes to her decisions organically, she’s not defiant from the start but almost surprises herself in becoming so passionately involved.

Maud is drawn to the cause by Violet played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff, who agitates in the laundry and remains unaffected by the derision of the other workers. We’re only given hints about Violet’s domestic life – an alcoholic husband, numerous children and continual moves – but Duff instils her with a believable sense of a woman who made her choice long ago but human enough to understand the costs for everyone. Duff and Mulligan are supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a local pharmacist (with a sympathetic husband) who coordinates the local campaigns at increasing cost to her own health. Bonham Carter here gives one of her best performances in years, played absolutely straight, and represents another kind of sacrifice women made to secure the vote. Romola Garai turns up far more briefly than the promotional material suggests as a wealthy politician’s wife, whose role seems only to be patronised by her husband to show that other classes of women wanted the vote too – in fact she only has slightly more screen time than Meryl Streep as Pankhurst in a ‘blink- and-you’ll-miss-her’ 30 seconds of screen time, she’ll probably win an Oscar for it though!

It’s not all about the women and we see three different sets of men. First Ben Whishaw has a decent stab as Maud’s disapproving husband, and is probably the only man in the film who you see is also filling a socially determined gendered role, expected to control his wife, support the family and make the decisions. There’s also the one-note bulling factory boss with an eye for young girls that emphasises the horrific lot of working women at this time, and finally there’s a coming together of politicians and some kinds of secret service / police group that gives interesting texture about how the Establishment tracked and attempted to undermine the Suffragettes, but tells us little about the expectations on powerful men in this period. Brendan Gleeson and Sam West appear in the latter group and both are excellent, but West in particular is criminally underused.

As you leave the cinema, the thing you remember most is the violence that these women endured. Early on after finding the Government has betrayed them, a Suffragette protest is broken up by the savage beating of women by policeman which is hard to watch. This leads to some equalling gruelling prison scenes that show further assaults on the dignity of the female prisoners and in a galling scene the force-feeding of a hunger-striker through the nose. This of course all leads up to the finale at the Derby where director Sarah Gavron builds the tension with bustling crowd scenes full of confusion before the fatal moment when a shocked silence descends as the newspaper cameras finally notice the Suffragettes.  And this nicely dissolves from our cast going off to the funeral to the real footage of Suffragettes honouring their cause behind the hearse.

So is this a good film or is it an important one? Of course as the first ever film about Suffragettes its importance is assured and with very little competition unless you count one of Alec Guinness’s many brief turns in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But it also stands as an interesting and carefully crafted film, full of multi-layered characters who just happen to be telling true stories. Refreshingly, there’s no sense of inevitability about it and although we know now how it eventually turned out, the precariousness of it comes through so well in this film. And as the final notes reveal it still took a World War to give women over 30 the vote and another 10 years before everyone got the right. I said at the beginning that Suffragette is a film about betrayal and sacrifice, and so it carefully weaves together a national political cause with the domestic treacheries and losses endured by the women involved. Suffragette stands then not just as symbol of a 100 year old movement but brings a very human tale of bravery and faith to remind us that sometimes a higher cause is worth fighting for.

Suffragette was shown at the BFI London Film Festival and the programme is

Victim – BFI London Film Festival

It’s not often you get to see a film that contributed to a positive change in Britain’s law and helped to alter societal attitudes. Victim did just that. It was released in 1961, when homosexuality was still illegal and even saying the word in a film was unheard of. The story opens with a young wage clerk on a construction site running from the police who want to arrest him for stealing. He unsuccessfully tries to phone Melville Farr, a leading barrister, who refuses to take his calls. The clerk, Barrett, is arrested and we learn he stole the money because he was being blackmailed over an unconsummated romantic relationship with Farr, who he refuses to reveal to the police. Farr himself has had no contact with the blackmailers so decides to try and work out who’s behind it, encountering a number of people in Barrett’s circle suffering a similar ordeal.

It may seem like a tame mystery plot now, but the film was hugely provocative in the early 60s; America refused to show it and several actors had turned down the lead roles. The controversy was amplified by the film’s star leading matinee idol Dirk Bogarde, star of several wartime classics and the Doctor series (a tame precursor to Carry On) which had made him a much-loved actor in Britain on the cusp of a Hollywood career. He is perfectly cast as Farr managing to convey a stoical and smooth public image, whilst riven with repression, guilt and sadness in private. The scenes between Farr and his wife Laura, played by Sylvia Sym, are some of the best in the film, exploring the nature of marriage, companionship and varying forms of love which clearly exist between the couple. Laura knew of a pre-relationship Farr had with a school friend but married him anyway, and rather than a tired cliché of the wronged and unsuspecting wife, we get a very clever and sensitive portrayal of a woman who understands the world, responding with respect and dignity to her husband’s situation. The scenes between them are at times very tender, and despite Farr’s affair with another man, he clearly loves and needs his wife. It’s rare, even now, to see such complexity in similar on-screen relationships, which helps to make it all the more realistic.

Despite the reaction on release, this isn’t a sensationalist film; in fact it’s fairly gentle. The story is driven by the mystery to be solved, and is pretty traditional in its framing. The senior detective leading the case is more interested in the blackmailers than what people are being blackmailed for, which is also nicely played. You get to hear a range of contemporary views about homosexuality but it’s hardly ever preachy. It was great to see Sylvia Sym at the Q&A beforehand, irascible, belligerent and hilarious, but reinforcing how important this film was and how much she loved working on it. This was a fitting end to my film festival experience, 3 out of 4 very good films, and the chance to see something that really made a difference.

The BFI London Film Festival ended on 20th October. Victim is available to buy on the BFI website.

Adore – BFI London Film Festival

Well… this is a strange one. Adore is the story of childhood female friends who grow up together and continue to live next door in beautiful cliff edge beach houses in Australia. Lil, played by Naomi Watts, loses her husband and lives alone with her son Ian. Roz, played by Robin Wright, is married to Harold and they also have a son of an equivalent age, Tom, who is likewise Ian’s best friend. The film, based on a Doris Lessing story, gets going when the two women are 40, and decide to embark on corresponding affairs with each other’s sons (aged about 20). Yep, it’s pretty weird, and the film really doesn’t work.

What should have been an interesting premise is turned into a hugely preposterous melodrama. I’ve never seen such a negative audience reaction to a film and people laughed out loud at the clunky ridiculousness of it. The main problem is the lack of genuine emotional response to any of the events. Roz is first to succumb after a party – her husband of 20 years has recently been offered the job of lifetime in Sydney where he heads for two weeks expecting his family to follow – so because he’s not there Roz begins her affair with Lil’s son Ian. There’s no build up to this, no lingering looks or indication she’s unhappy in her marriage, in fact quite the opposite. It makes no sense. But it gets worse; Tom sees them and goes to tell Lil. You would imagine that her maternal instinct would be shocked, sickened, angry, disgusted by her friend’s predatory behaviour; she should march round there, confront her and end their friendship – right? Err… no. Naomi Watts as Lil tries to be perplexed for a second, but she’s probably wondering how her career will survive a series of rubbish films. Instead of a ‘normal’ reaction, she just starts a relationship with Tom. Two minutes later, everyone is fine with it and they just carry on. What?!!

This happens throughout the film, where you expect reactions from the characters you don’t get them. Ian and Tom both seem fine that their best friend has gone after their mum, and Roz waves goodbye to her 20 year marriage with barely a flicker. We’re supposed to believe that people would react like this and that no one in the small community would notice over a number of years. At under two hours, too many loose ends make it feel like three; events occur and are resolved so quickly it makes Downton Abbey look sluggish. There are pockets of good stuff; the acting is pretty decent and the visuals are lovely – although some of the metaphors are a bit heavy handed such as the floating platform they all swim out to – yes I get it, this is the fragile rocky little world they’re creating. Even if you can accept the son-swapping, it needed to be more human and more dramatic; perhaps one couple who genuinely fall for each other, and the other out for revenge exploring how this tears the various inter-relationships apart. Fortunately (for them), none of the people involved turned up to talk about the film so we left with no idea why they’d bothered to make it. On the plus side I did see Albert Finney in Tesco Piccadilly beforehand, so not an entirely wasted day.

 The BFI London Film Festival is on until 20th October.

Doll & Em – BFI London Film Festival

A couple of months ago the BFI’s London Film Festival 100 page catalogue dropped through my door, and I was actually surprised by how many films are on over the next couple of weeks. I’ve always been vaguely aware of the festival but somehow it’s always passed me by. But having an old fashioned brochure in my hand made me stop and read it…half an hour later I’d identified about 10 films I wanted to see, although I eventually rationed myself to 4.

My first ever visit to the film festival wasn’t really a film at all; Doll & Em is a six-part show due to air on Sky Living sometime in 2014 but here we got to see it back to back – essentially a box-set night with a hundred or so total strangers in a central London cinema. With so many films and venues, I wasn’t expecting much festivity at 6pm on a Thursday night but it turned out to be quite an occasion. Not only was there an unadvertised introduction and Q&A with leads, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells plus director, but there were a few other actors dotted about the audience – notably Jonathan Cake who will be familiar from Poirot, many a period drama and lately Desperate Housewives. I also ended up sitting in front of Emily Mortimer’s enthusiastic entourage so it was quite a starry evening with a definitely sense of occasion.

The show itself is set in LA, a scripted improvisation following the story of film star Em who hires her best and oldest friend Doll to be her assistant after her UK life implodes. Em is making a film but Doll becomes more popular, and in each episode their relationship is tested on set, at parties and at home. Seeing all six shows worked really well in the cinema, showing the nuances of female friendships and the mini jealousies, betrayals and tender moments that will be familiar to everyone. This type of fly-on-the-wall tragi-comedy has roots in The Office and to some extent Extras, with the odd cameo for stars like Susan Sarandon and John Cusack. They probably won’t thank me for saying this but you could see it as an inverted version of Made in Chelsea or TOWIE, but done by people who can write and act convincingly, with plausible storylines.  It drew you in, showing multiple sides to a long and very ordinary friendship in a slightly unreal situation. So my first visit to the Film Festival was pretty exciting, and with more films to come, I’m definitely looking forward to what the next one will bring.

The BFI London Film Festival is on until 20th October. Doll & Em is expected on Sky Living in February.

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