Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 2

System changes, Monos, Waves, and the Opening Gala: The Personal History of David Copperfield.

First official day of Press & Industry screenings here at Leicester Square and it is already absolute chaos.  In prior years, as long-time readers of the site may be aware, such screenings were primarily held at the spacious and accommodating Picturehouse Central with each screening block – and whose schedule was presented in actual blocks that were easy to grasp at a glance – being organised via simple queuing for each different screen.  For reasons unclear, the venue was not kept this year – nor was the handy manner of displaying the screening blocks; instead just dumping a lengthy barely-formatted list with no dividers to help those with difficulty immediately discerning wall-of-text documents – and the manner of screening accreditation has changed too. Now, people hoping to see a film have to wait until 30 mins prior to a screening, then stand in line to get a ticket, then go kill time for 15 minutes before the doors to the screen open and people with a ticket are let in.  What once was one simple step is now four needlessly complicated steps.

I get the theoretical reasoning behind it.  The new steps are supposed to allow staffers a better knowledge of how many people can be admitted into a screening given the VUE’s generally smaller seating capacity in all of its screens, all without having to guesswork based on temperamental scanners and minimising the risk of complaints and abuse from folks shut out – yes, believe it or not, there all a whole lot of hateful dillweeds who demand to speak to a supervisor in the “professional” ranks, I’ve seen them.  Plus, it’s also meant to boost health and safety by minimising fire-risk Snake-like queues forming around the much smaller VUE foyers by simply not having them prior to allotted times.

In practice so far, however, it’s been an unmitigated clusterfuck as, shocker, telling people not to queue just forces them into chaotic “not-queues” of awkward unstructured semicircles or amorphous blobs which just descend en masse on the poor volunteers who don’t know what to do at dispensary time.  Then, everybody goes and cues immediately for the screen anyway which ends up covering a Snake-like tail around the small foyers, exactly what the system was meant to prevent.  And, to top it all off, the passes still have to be scanned at the door and these new paper-and-plastic badges have yet to find a scanner that didn’t take exasperating half-minute long tries and retries to recognise and do the thing.  Great start all round, then, but I have also been moaning about shoddy Festival organisation and how “it wasn’t this bad last year” since 2017, so maybe I’m just a grumpy boots blinded by nostalgia.  Still, management have presumably had a while to prep and therefore should really have seen this immediate breaking down and loud grumblings from my associates coming.  Maybe they’ll get it sorted in a day or two and these are just the growing pains of a poorly-thought-out system plan, a localised test to go spiritually nationwide with Brexit on 1st November.

Lest you think I am the only one with Brexit and the impending headless-chicken collapse of the nation I am forced to call home on the brain, Armando Iannucci made multiple references to that looming spectre in the post-screening Q&A for his latest film, and this year’s Opening Gala, The Personal History of David Copperfield (Grade: B).  At a casual glance, David Copperfield seems like quite the departure for the man previously responsible for such caustic, vital and openly political works as In the Loop, The Death of Stalin, Veep and his long satirical career to date.  To instead pivot to adapting Charles Dickens would seem like anathema to a man who has otherwise taken great joy in agitating and provoking the establishment.  But a fact which can be lost to time by years of enforced academic study in school and stodgy televised and theatrical (both stage and screen) adaptations was that Dickens’ work carried a very liberal and satirical streak, railing against the social conditions and class divisions of Victorian-era London based upon his personal experiences of having come from and lost wealth and stability, streaks that are still relevant today and worryingly not substantively changed in the centuries since.

Iannucci cited both Copperfield and Great Expectations as the gateways into his love for Dickens which, given his own work, begins to make this pairing more natural than it first appeared and the results of his film adaptation bear that out.  Copperfield is indeed a breezier, more feel-good, optimistic work than anything Iannucci has done before – perhaps sensing it would be the first question on everyone’s lips, he headed off such inquiries at the pass by almost immediately proclaiming as soon as he got the microphone to be an optimist, which actually makes sense since only an optimist could make something as seething with bile and rage as The Thick of It – but it still has Iannucci’s distinct voice at its centre.  In fact, both Iannucci (aided by regular co-screenwriter Simon Blackwell) and Dickens’ voices manage to ingratiate themselves in a matter where neither’s essence is truly diluted.  In the story of the titular Copperfield (Jairaj Varsani as a child, Dev Patel as an adult), a precocious gentleman who falls into and out of misfortune and ruin multiple times across his eventful life, Iannucci brings the satire and pointed liberal disgust for callous profit-driven landlords and judgemental hypocritical snobs of any class up to date, drawing pointed parallels between 1800s Victorian Britain and 2010s Tory Britain without belabouring the point or losing the distinctly Dickensian wit of the text.

Dickens’ work, for its part, encourages Iannucci as a director to think more cinematically for perhaps the first time in his career.  There’s a near-total absence of his usual cinema-verité style, here.  Everything is controlled, composed, designed – cinematographer Zac Nicholson getting to play with expansive vistas shot lovingly with long-lenses, stylistically deployed soft-focus to communicate the overwhelming wonder a new-born’s eyes see every single day, and showier longer takes where the camera pirouettes around the cast.  Iannucci also intermittently engages in playing with the boundaries and realities of the tale being told, production designer Cristina Casali getting to utilise physical backdrops, bursting dioramas, and dulled colours in a manner which calls to mind Paul King’s similar intentional artifice in the Paddington duology.  All of this feeds into some sharp comedy which, although a touch more genial and overall good-natured than in previous Iannucci works – the stretches covering Mr. Dick’s (the best Hugh Laurie has been in years) mental illness elegantly walking the tightrope between treating him respectfully whilst still mining proper jokes – is still extremely funny and masterfully executed by a murderer’s row of British talent: Patel, Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Rosalind Eleazar and Peter Capaldi to name but a few.

The dramatic side of the tale, however, is admittedly lacking.  The bitter pill which sugared the genial optimism of Dickens’ work has largely been shorn in this adaptation, arguably an unfortunate but necessary by-product of trying to condense a serialised door-stopper down into a single brisk two hours-dead movie.  Certain passages of Copperfield’s life are forced to be skimmed through, no sooner has he been shipped off to work in Mr. Murdstone’s bottle factory and lodge with the Micawbers is he all grown up and on the streets again, which means that certain emotional through-lines like Steerforth’s crippling depression don’t hit as they should and the final third is required to be all-plot, racing to tie a bow on proceedings.  But none of this negates what a fun, highly-enjoyable and refreshingly hopeful time at the movies David Copperfield is, with its diverse casting acting as a loving tribute to the multiculturalism that makes Britain deserving of the Great prefixed to its name.  Plus, it proves Iannucci to be a surprisingly restless creative who is clearly willing to push himself into unexpected territories rather than fall back on his laurels and that’s exciting to see.

In prior years, that would be the end of your Opening Day coverage.  However, 2019 LFF has clearly decided “fuck your comforts, you don’t need easing in, we’re chucking you in the deep end and also be up at 6am after five hours’ sleep tomorrow, there’s another major Gala film on” and threw dozens more press screenings on me instead.  Fortunately, my choices for the other screening blocks don’t require so many words although, much like with By the Grace of God yesterday, that’s not meant as the burn it otherwise appears to be.  Rather, Monos (Grade: B) is an extremely direct film whose qualities are simple to express and evident to witness.  Namely: it’s a really fucking intense stripped-down thriller.  Alejandro Landes’ third feature centres on a guerrilla unit of eight child (although they’re more accurately teenaged) soldiers in an unspecified civil war-stricken part of South America as they slowly fall apart at the seams due to infighting, hormonal lust towards basically everything they see, their own moments of childish ineptitude (which only makes their effectiveness the rest of the time more chilling), and the machinations of the American doctor (Julianne Nicholson) they’ve been keeping as a prisoner-of-war.

Narratively and thematically, it’s a fairly boilerplate Lord of the Flies take-off with the bare minimum of character work required for each of the eight teens to be distinguishable from one another (and even then barely).  They drink, they fuck, they fuck up, they freak out, one inevitably reveals themselves to be more bloodthirsty and megalomaniacal than the others, one inevitably gets a crisis of conscience and makes a break for it.  But those are not why one comes to Monos, and not coincidentally is why the film is a touch slow to start.  Rather, it’s the atmosphere and mood which are so responsible for Monos’ transfixing power.  This is a lean, mean and genuinely vicious thriller despite what the arthouse presentation may have you believe.  Jasper Wolfe’s cinematography provides a constant state of beautiful grimness, rarely ceasing in its efforts to find artful and inventive ways to stage pulse-pounding action and shocking bursts of sudden violence as well as tense often-non-verbal exchanges in a visually arresting manner that, ala Roger Deakins’ work on Skyfall or Leo Hinstin’s on Nocturama (which Monos reminded me a tonne of), never sacrifices the intensity of the action itself at the altar of aesthetics.

Mica Levi’s score winds up being arguably the key ingredient which binds the concoction together, though.  A frequently roaring, oppressive beast of a thing, interpolating the squadron’s mouth-calls to each other into the instrumentation, utilising subtle countermelodies and digitally-manipulated orchestration, and distorted drones to unsettle, unease and unnerve without (and this is where I side-eye Little Joe some more) becoming a genuine pain to listen to.  Her music is so in sync with Landes’ brutally unsparing direction – make no mistake, you may think after the film cuts away from the narrative’s true inciting act that you’re not going to be forced to confront the violence these teens can inflict and have inflicted upon them, and you will be dead-wrong on that account – that it’s at times hard to tell who is doing the heavier lifting.  Little wonder Landes’ initial end credits roll simply lists the names of key personnel without any information about their job titles.  Once Monos descends into the Apocalypse Now-invoking jungle, the film never lets the viewer get their breath back for a second until the final haunting smash-cut to black.  What more can I say?  Some films just do their jobs that unmistakeably.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I can’t talk much about Waves (Grade: A-), the third feature from Trey Edward Shults (previous of Krisha and It Comes at Night) because it is near-impossible to talk about in a manner which I feel is best left to the reader to find out for themselves.  And that itself does feel like saying too much, if only because doing so is going to have viewers headed in with their minds trying to piece together what the big thing nobody’s really saying is rather than sitting back and letting the bigger picture slowly and masterfully crystallise in front of them as Shults’ intimate epic glides along.

In short, Waves is seemingly about one thing until it very suddenly, brutally and tragically is not, yet, by the time the movie reaches the destination of its emotional wringer, everything leading up to the pivot is still absolutely vital for decoding the at-times laconic and seemingly frivolous movie Waves can dip into either side.  So, in attempting to keep things as vague as possible, it’s a story about mistakes.  About how one person’s abuse, knowing or otherwise, can send ripple effects across an entire family in ways both seemingly benign – a father (Sterling K. Brown) prioritising his star athlete son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) over spending genuine time with his daughter (Taylor Russell) – and far more catastrophic – such as said son’s enforced toxic masculinity leaving him entirely incapable of dealing with emotional fragility.  About how, when everything crashes down in the worst possible way, those left to deal with the fallout manage to rebuild and find peace or even a measure of forgiveness rather than succumb to understandable hatred.  About how, even when it irrevocably alters the trajectory of one’s life, the actions of others do not need to define one’s life.

Like I said, this is extremely hard to discuss because meaningfully grappling with what Shults’ film is about requires saying even more than I already have (more perceptive readers are probably already ahead of the game unfortunately) and the collective reaction my screening had to the pivot, one which shook all of us to our core, is not something I wish to take away from anyone.  What I can say is that the film is truly emotionally draining, going through the entire spectrum over the course of its 135 minutes that I had to remain locked rigid in my seat until well after the lights came back up in order to reorient myself.  But there is a real beauty within the pain, a genuinely masterful handling of tonal control from Shults where the film never slides into misery or (worse) numbness, disarmingly so once Lucas Hedges turns up as pretty much the most perfect awkward boyfriend who ever lived – the kind of guy who sings Vampire Weekend in the shower and apologises constantly during sex for the slightest mistake.

It’s certainly a beguiling film to watch no matter what happens.  Cinematographer Drew Daniels throws a kinetic, colourful, propulsive visual palette that at times resembles a music video, which makes sense given the vital interplay between visuals and music.  Multiple key moments throughout the narrative are set to music in a manner that goes beyond simple needle-drops, such is the how the storytelling both visual and audio contorts and distorts themselves for maximum effect – even with songs I knew inside and out when they came on, there were multiple times where I had trouble figuring out where the songs stopped and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ alternately-dreamy and foreboding score started.  It’s rather akin to synaesthesia, one which is frequently intruded by the consistently-contracting and expanding aspect ratios as we build to and from the pivot at the film’s centre.  But all the formal tricks in the world would be for nothing without Harrison Jr. and Russell’s absolutely sensational central performances.  Harrison gets the “showier” turn but Russell is such a lynchpin for the emotional knockout Shults eventually unleashes that her subtleties and ability to communicate a thousand rushing emotions in the slightest of facial twitches arguably qualifies as the movie’s secret weapon.

Despite the fact that I’ve still managed to get four entire paragraphs out of the thing even with my handicaps, trust me when I tell you that it is still near-impossible to meaningfully discuss Waves without spoiling but that doing so to the uninitiated is unconscionable.  Shults’ latest is a personal epic, sweeping yet centred, and toweringly devastatingly emotional; for all of its shagginess, one of 2019’s absolute finest films.  You need to see this, you deserve to see this.  Don’t try to second-guess.  Just let it wash over.

Tomorrow: we dive back into the Official Competition line-up with the world premiere of psychological thriller Rose Plays Julie, and my time with public screenings has already kicked off thanks to the crushing Clemency.

Callie Petch is not living, they’re just killing time.

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