Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2019: Day 7

Dealing with festival fatigue, White Riot, and The Aeronauts.

I’ve been attempting to pace myself throughout my time here at the Festival, this year.  Going full-tilt at it with screenings and write-ups was totally great in my first year when I was young and hungry and could bash out concise-ish and focussed reviews within thirty mins a piece like it was nothing.  Attempting to replicate such a strategy in my second and third years… did not turn out so well – lots of shameful micro-naps during films, lots of late nights fruitlessly bashing my brain into functioning, lots of grumpy feelings about just wanting the whole thing to be over by the halfway mark.  So, this year, I’ve been attempting to make a concerted effort to know my limits.  Aiming for bed before midnight and usually hitting it, jump-starting my write-ups throughout the day on my rapidly-melting phone to minimise work when I get back to the accommodation, shifting write-ups around the schedule rather than pumping everything out the day of.

And, most importantly, taking the odd break for myself.  I’ve missed several screening blocks this year, one by deliberately sleeping in, which in previous years I would have considered inconceivable.  And I’ve been spending more time conversing with other Press & Industry folks than in past years, either in-queue, post-film or at specific drinks-based informal events around town.  Part of this is thanks to Kelechi Ehenulo, a friend of mine from Set the Tape who has gone out of her way to hang with me and ingratiate me into her circle of friends to make it easier for me to talk with total strangers.  (Go read her coverage, too. It’s great and offers different perspectives and styles to mine.)  The other reason is because, as it turns out, a lot of the same people patronise this festival every year and damn-near everybody is happy to immediately jump in at first recognition for a catch-up, so much of that initial crippling anxiety gets cut off because, 9 times out of 10, that person will actually recognise your face and be glad to talk about film for near-hours at a time.  And heaven knows we all need to support each other when grinding through this mega-festival.  The VUE doesn’t even have a proper café bar! Why did we venue-switch again?

So, that’s one reason why today’s write-up is lacking in content. I went out in the eve and had drinks with what I would call friends, just like a normal adult with a healthy social life.  The other reason is because I put in for the latest round of Filmmaker Afternoon Teas – 90 min sessions where various Press folks descend on the May Fair Hotel for one-on-one interviews with an assembled group of directors in a quickfire fashion.  I had done one of these two years ago, with Nora Twomey of The Breadwinner, and this time I arrived having seen multiple films by multiple filmmakers on the list for the session so that I might actually do more than stand around scarfing down scones to stave off a hypo for my diabetes.

Because I am indeed Boo Boo the Fool, things did not work out well and the session was somewhat of a waste of time, which especially aggravated me since it was overlapping two entire screening blocks so I only got to watch the one film.  The first, Rose Glass of the chilling Saint Maud, pulled out 15 minutes before the session was due to start so that was a bust right out of the gate.  The second, Rashaad Ernesto Green of the sublime Premature, saw me allocated five minutes between his other engagements which was enough time for three surface questions and nothing more.  (Nonetheless, the write-up of that transcript will be on the site next Saturday.)  And the third, Rubika Shah was there for the documentary panel only and wasn’t doing one-on-one interviews.  In her defence, she is clearly heavily pregnant and was a last-min addition to my list after watching her film the previous night due to being shut out of Luce.

Instead, I had a nice informal chat with her producing partner Ed Gibbs (none of which I’ll repeat here since it wasn’t on-record) and discovered that a) he’s a very nice knowledgeable guy, and b) I will tie myself in knots attempting to avoid criticising somebody’s film to their face even when I wasn’t particularly a fan.  Total professional, me is.  White Riot (Grade: C+) isn’t a bad film – especially not when compared to the other thing in my write-up today – but it is a film which fails in one area yet succeeds in another, with that failing area being the documentary’s main animating premise.  It’s about Rock Against Racism, the music-centric anti-Nazi and anti-National Front activist group formed in the midst of the punk explosion in the mid-70s and the growing legitimisation of the White supremacist movement.  From the initial apoplectic response to Eric Clapton’s disgusting endorsement of Enoch Powell in ’76, to the influential spread of their official zine Tempo-RAR-y Holdings, and culminating at the movement’s biggest victory, the 80,000 strong anti-fascist demonstration march through London and accompanying Victoria Park protest concert in ’78.

As a student and fan of history, I found the movie to be genuinely illuminating about that period in British society, a period which is perhaps-unsurprisingly not frequently discussed.  The parallels between the social and racial ills of the late-70s and today are made startlingly clear as Shah’s documentary progresses, although this is less due to her direction (which doesn’t go out of its way to bash the contemporary relevance across the viewer’s head) and more due to society’s apparent depressingly cyclical nature demonstrating that such views and their recent rise and legitimisation are nothing new – “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again,” to quote one particularly great sci-fi show.  The archival footage is genuinely astonishing from a social historian perspective, particularly just how clearly it paints the police’s wilful complicity in the Front’s rise, and White Riot makes for a really eye-opening documentary about racism and fascism in the UK in the 70s, including brief but clear explorations of the true causes for the slide towards hatred culture.

But of course, White Riot is not a documentary about fascism in Britain in the 70s.  That’s certainly a necessary part, but it’s meant to merely add context to the story of Rock Against Racism, a story that is lacking in momentum, specifics and many real tangibles.  In a way, this is just the risk inherent in covering an underground movement, one that doesn’t exactly keep a firm paper trail, is without many major players and whose influence you do largely just have to take one’s word for.  But it leaves these parts of the film, the ones dealing with Tempo-RAR-y Holdings, feeling much less interesting and flimsier on the content than the parts about the rise of the NF and the counter-rise of other anti-Nazi groups, despite the cool zine-like graphics and animations which are dotted throughout.  At my screening, Shah and Gibbs revealed that the film had been finished just two days prior, and the only way that’s plainly evident is in the stock ominous droning which makes up the score and feels needlessly portentous when paired with the punk soundtrack.  But White Riot does also bear the marks of a film whose scope was never quite managed like it needed to be, causing the central story to constantly get away from them and ultimately be the least interesting part of its own film.

At least there was something of interest in White Riot, though. That puts it several entire ladders above The Aeronauts (Grade: D), this year’s Mayor of London Gala and continuing the fine tradition of said Gala reliably being utter tosh.  But even in the shadow of past entries Their Finest and A Private War, The Aeronauts is easily the most utterly worthless film to receive that slot in the years I’ve been coming here.  The Gala may be a moth-light for budding boring-ass empty Oscar Bait, but here is a slice of budding boring-ass empty Oscar Bait with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever.  Not even a single decent inevitably-non-nominated performance, although that’s probably not much of a surprise when your leads are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Redmayne plays James Glaisher, a real person, budding meteorologist who wants to pilot a balloon right up to the Earth’s upper atmosphere in order to study the weather, forward science, and also get back at those snooty elitist scientists who keep making fun of him.  Jones plays Amelia Rennes, a fictional possible-amalgamation of many different real people who did not have a connection to Glaisher, the former aeronaut whom Glaisher recruits to pilot his new balloon that shall break the all-time altitude record but, in between her every other sentence being cynically calculated to befit a For Your Consideration #girlboss montage, is nursing unresolved baggage from the death of her aeronaut husband two years earlier.  Together, they shall spend approximately 100 minutes stuck in a balloon saying that their oil-and-water dynamic has softened into legitimate bonding rather than actually showing them legitimately bonding and absolutely nothing of interest will occur within that timeframe to distract from this fact.

Director Tom Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne set the main thrust of their movie on the day of that fateful record-breaking ascent – which, again, real thing that happened to only half of the people in that balloon – and in doing so insinuate that we’re going to be getting a sort of chamber piece where we remain locked into the real-time exploits of Glaisher and Renees, especially since their flight takes roughly the same length of time as the movie itself.  Alas, such an interesting and novel approach to the material was perhaps too strenuous or constraining an undertaking for both men and the film based around two people bonding in an air balloon works quickly to get itself out of the balloon at every possible opportunity.  Aeronauts relies on flashbacks like a suburban White woman relies on a speed-dial 911 whenever a Black person raises their tone even an inch, filling in both characters’ backstories with all the same level of originality and effort of buying a template essay online, changing the initials on it to one’s own and then submitting that work as entirely yours.  And since these flashbacks don’t have Glaisher and Renees interact all that much, we don’t see their relationship grow in either the past or the present and so the emotional crux of the film is rendered thoroughly inert and doesn’t correlate to anything we have seen on-screen.

It’s reflective of Thorne’s screenplay overall.  Empty, generic, lacking in any substance or character or something other than hackneyed trailer-ready “inspirational” lines.  Harper’s direction certainly isn’t any better.  Perhaps he and Thorne were so desperate to get out of the balloon because he was unable to find any sustained interesting ways to shoot our time inside of it.  Sometimes he’ll find an interesting perspective shift or minor tracking angle, but otherwise he will very quickly revert back to clumsily-framed close-ups; hope you really enjoy looking at the nostrils of both Redmayne and Jones.  He’s bizarrely incapable of communicating both the beauty of being up in the clouds, of being one of the first humans to see the world from above and experience its natural phenomena and splendour, and the danger of things going wrong, his setpieces barely raise a single finger hair let alone spike a pulse.  It’s also a bizarrely cheap-looking film, too, with completely unconvincing CGI even for the goddamn balloon – the first time they cut to a wide shot of it on the ground before take-off I even muttered to myself “geez, that looks terrible” – and a flat over-lit visual palette for everything else.

And Redmayne and Jones are… just awful in this.  To be fair to Redmayne, he is perhaps the most tolerable I’ve ever found him outside of Jupiter Ascending but there are still many long stretches, particularly during the madness descent in the freezing atmosphere, where he busts out all his insufferable showy “ACTING” tics and he never convinces as a character.  But the real disaster is Jones who is clearly attempting to Revenant DiCaprio herself to an Oscar nomination except that she’s doing so on an obviously green-screened soundstage so she just looks utterly ridiculous, and she oversells every single terrible line of dialogue like she’s attempting to run for class president at an upper-crust middle school.  They’re both completely embarrassing and neither helps dissuade the stink around Aeronauts of it being Gravity for inept dullards.  Whilst less aggravating than Little Joe, it somehow has even less to recommend it than that painful hateful assault.  Absolutely dismal waste of time.

Tomorrow: Girlhood’s Céline Sciamma brings her buzzy new period romance Portrait of a Woman on Fire, and we finally take in a South Korean feature at the Festival with Ga-Young Jeong’s provocative Heart.

Callie Petch!  “You’re gonna need a bigger boat, boys, you’re in trouble.

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