LFF 2016 reviews: Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, A United Kingdom, A Monster Calls
James R | On 08, Oct 2016
From Netflix’s Black Mirror and Amazon’s originals to MUBI’s Cannes acquisitions and Dogwoof’s live-streaming premiere of Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, the 2016 London Film Festival has embraced VOD like never before. We head to Leicester Square to check out some of the films and TV shows on offer.
Manchester by the Sea
“Do we have to talk about it now?” “No.” That’s Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after the sudden death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). It’s a sentiment that runs rife throughout Manchester by the Sea, a drama about a family dealing with the pain of grief – by refusing to deal with it.
Lee finds himself made the legal guardian for his nephew, something he’s both incapable and unwilling to do. What first seems like a selfish antisocial streak, though, gradually emerges as something far more poignant, as writer-director Kenneth Lonergan peels back the layers of his traumatic past.
Casey Affleck delivers a career-best turn in the lead, turning himself into a simmering landmine of unspoken rage and sadness – in the modern generation of star actors, he comfortably joins the ranks of Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon and Shia LeBeouf as contenders to be the next Marlon Brando. One fraught conversation with Michelle Williams, as his ex-wife, is devastating, as we watch two broken adults struggle to get to the end of their sentences.
The resut is pained, painstaking study of unsaid emotions, which burst through to the surface to funny and sad effect – often at the same time. After the wayward Margaret, Lonergan is on firmer structural footing, but he’s lost none of his ability to capture the prickly mess of real life, in which people need to talk about the things that matter, but never want to. Amazon snapped up the film at Sundance this year for exclusive US streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It’s not hard to see why.
A United Kingdom
Do you know the story of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948? Don’t worry: not many people do, including those in Botswana. Their whirlwind romance, which faced stern opposition from Seretse’s uncle, the apartheid-ruled South Africa, and the British Empire (in bed with South Africa at the time) is the subject of A United Kingdom.
It might sound like heavy going, but the film’s success lies in balancing their marital struggles with Seretse’s political battle – two fights that are often one and the same. David Oyelowo, who jumped from standout star of Spooks to Oscar-worthy A-lister with Selma, is marvellously charismatic as the heart-on-his-sleeve king, while Rosamund Pike as his wife continues to prove more and more versatile – here, her facial expressions switch from the rush of first love to the sadness of losing it with astonishing speed.
Director Amma Asante, who demonstrated her skill at telling untold stories with Belle, lets us bask in their shared joy, before separating them for most of the runtime, a trick that brings real catharsis to their efforts to be reunited. In the villain corner, meanwhile, Jack Davenport and Tom Felton manage not to ham it up, even as the British Empire’s treatment of the duo becomes despicable, turning an almost unbelievable story of love overcoming all into something compassionately, shockingly believable.
A Monster Calls
Juan Antonio Bayona confirms himself as one of Spain’s greatest modern directors this masterful adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel, which sees a 12-year-old boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness. Lewis MacDouggall is exceptional as the young outsider, with Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell and Sigourney Weaver all delivering equally brilliant performances as his mum, absent father and outwardly stern grandmother, but it’s the film’s extraordinary special effects that are the real star – or, rather, the blending of the two.
As Conor retreats into his imagination for guidance, Liam Neeson towers over him as a talking, seemingly wise tree. The result is a hugely moving study of storytelling as a way of confronting life, as Bayona serves up stunning animation, collosal destruction and tender revelations with a confident mix of tragedy and humour – Bayona’s camera, as always, never stays still, giving everything a sense of exciting discovery.
The movie might earn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth or Spielberg’s best, but from its themes that play out like an inverted The Orphanage and the stylish visuals of Penny Dreadful to the sheer heartbreaking wallop of The Impossible, Bayona’s film that’s all his own.
Fresh from Luke Cage, Mahershala Ali delivers another impeccable turn in this superb, low-key drama, which tracks the growth of Chiron, a quiet kid in 1980s Miami, whose burgeoning sexuality makes him different from the others in his class. Ali plays a deceptively gentle drug kingpin who helps little Chiron, but we soon leave him behind as we jump through the years of his youth to his eventual adult life – a journey of hard knocks, tender kisses and powerful silences. Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton) is incredible, supported by an unrecognisable Naomie Harris as his junkie mother. Director Barry Jenkins joins the dots between his three stages of growth with an underplayed gravitas that builds to a profound exploration of masculinity and identity – a big story that dares to stay small.