Six of the Best from the BFI London Film Festival, 2020
Louis Bayman

A Chernobyl-born cult leader, a hypocritical university lecturer, and a Syrian musician turned refugee are some of the memorable characters in our selection from this year’s London Film Festival.

We reported earlier this month that the London Film Festival would be a more intimate affair than usual, much of it at home, with no gala performances and a smaller selection of films.

Of course, the festival did still have its headline acts. Ammonite, its closing finale, was a touching tale of love set in 1840s Lyme Regis (which we will review at greater length soon), with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as its leads. It was an effective if conventional choice, like the festival opener, Steve McQueen’s historical recreation Mangrove. Personally, I found McQueen’s other entry to the festival, Lovers Rock, more interesting, although a minor film and a kind of ‘B-side’ to Mangrove. McQueen’s genius is more for establishing a certain setting than in plot and it is put to especially good use in this almost non-narrative film of a Ladbroke Grove house party thrown at some point in the 1980s.

In the absence of an official competition the online audience picked the festival winner, awarding the prize to Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, about a group of schoolteachers who realise that their job is more fun if they drink every day. While there’s no arguing with taste I found this somewhat moralistic film a rather white, male and middle-aged choice compared to the diversity that the festival had put effort into displaying elsewhere.

The clear winner for me of the more crowd-pleasing films was the gorgeous, touching, One Night in Miami. Based on a stage play by first-time director Regina King, it imagines a meeting in a Miami hotel room between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, as they each contemplate a life changing decision: Clay to join the Muslim Brotherhood and Malcolm to leave it, Cooke to address social change in his music and Brown to depart the NFL to try a career in Hollywood. The decisions are as personal as they are political, and its central question – what does black success mean in a white society – is made to resound with a contemporary relevance despite the retro setting.

However, the festival is a chance to see films which won’t ever get the red carpet treatment. So here’s my list of six of the best to look out for beyond the big releases:

One Night in Miami (Regina King)
One Night in Miami (Regina King)
Dir. Christian Petzold (Germany/France)

Undine turns the conventional romance of a random city encounter into an absorbing and ultimately disquieting tale of love and pain. It will be familiar territory for viewers already acquainted with director Christian Petzold and lead actress Paula Beer, but it develops his concern with Europe’s historical scars in a more allegorical direction. Its lead character, Undine, is a guide to the architectural history of Berlin and is named after a water nymph of ancient legend. She becomes a figure who skirts the enigmatic realms of fantasy and disappointment, memory and myth.

Dir. Małgorzata Szumowska, Michael Englert (Poland/Germany)

Another film that holds a delicate balance between social commentary and fantasy is this film about a Ukranian masseur who accrues a cult following in a wealthy Polish suburb. Born in Pripyat in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, masseur Zhenia seems at first like he might have arrived as part of a moral lesson about migrant labour for the privileged members of the gated community, who simultaneously depend upon and look down on him. But as they fetishise the healing power of his tender strength, the near-wordless presence of this mysterious outsider comes to take on an altogether different, almost magical-realist quality, as the possibly sacred emissary of some cosmic power.

Dir. Natalia Meta (Argentina/Mexico)

This Argentine film takes its enigmas in a creepier direction. Starting out in comic vein as a woman realises that she doesn’t actually like the man she has gone on holiday with, his death soon after their arrival paradoxically makes him someone she can never truly be rid of. Meanwhile, she becomes the subject of the rather insistent attentions of an admirer she meets in the church where she sings, and, in a further inconvenience, her mother randomly decides to move in indefinitely. As a voiceover artist for horror films, this film is also part of a sub-genre of thrillers about a sound recordist, along with Blow Out, The Conversation and Berberian Sound Studio, that explore the eerily disembodied nature of the voice. The intruder of the title could thus be any one of a number of uncomfortably close beings, including her relationship to her own physical self.

Dir. Francisco Márquez (Argentina)

This second Argentine thriller is another imaginative recreation of the slow falling apart of the boundaries, and the sanity, of its central female protagonist, but the dissolution here reveals a series of uncomfortable truths about social class. Cecilia is a university lecturer, happily able to quote Althusser and Gramsci on bourgeois ideology. But when her maid’s son knocks on her door, her refusal to help him has fateful consequences. While showing up her conformity to the ultimately brutal logic that it is her day job to critique, this is also the first film I have ever seen that manages to find dramatic material in a dissertation supervision session, and a superb combination of psychological and political insight.

Dir. Aleem Khan (UK)

The success of this deeply moving British drama owes in large part to the central performance of Joana Scanlan, who plays Mary Husain, a resident of Dover whose ferry-captain husband Husain dies unexpectedly in the opening sequence, only for her to find out that he had a secret life just over the border in Calais. The film follows her as she works her way into the household of his secret mistress and son. While such a plot would in less capable hands be barely credible, the quiet brilliance of Scanlan’s performance means that the themes of betrayal, race, death and mourning are played with intelligent subtlety and heart-breaking conviction.

Dir. Ben Sharrock (UK)

It was a good year for British features, as shown by this comedy-drama about refugees seeking asylum in Scotland. What begins as a deadpan, rather absurdist culture-clash comedy turns to an intense portrait of the tragedies of dislocation. The humour’s absurdism is a nice way to show up both the awkwardness of cultural awareness and the bureaucratic cruelty of the exile situation. But it reaches real emotional depth in its second half as it probes the travails of Omar, a gifted young musician and Syrian refugee who must contend with the family he has left behind, the war he has fled and the music he may never play again.

Limbo (Ben Sharrock)
Limbo (Ben Sharrock)


Featured: After Love (Aleem Khan)
Louis Bayman

Louis Bayman


Louis Bayman is a film critic and academic based at the University of Southampton. He has co-edited a new book 'Folk horror on film' due October 2023. He is the co-editor, with Natália Pinazza, of The Directory of World Cinema: Brazil and World Film Locations: São Paulo, both published by Intellect Press.

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