The Hits and Misses from the 2021 BFI London Film Festival
Louis Bayman

Our film editor, Louis Bayman, tells us how the 65th BFI London Film Festival went down, including road movies and Halloween picks.

This year was a truly classic edition of the London Film Festival, which returned to public screenings after last year’s online-only event. The winner of the Official Festival Competition was the excellent Hit the Road, an Iranian road movie that was also the debut film from Panah Panahi, son of Jafar Panahi, the veteran director whose satirical visions of contemporary Iran got him arrested and banned from filmmaking. Not that this has softened his son’s filmmaking, who directs a road movie about a chaotic family in what starts out as very funny and ends up as deeply moving, even fantastical by its end. The emotional range develops with the varied landscape they travel, as the family get further away from Tehran and end up near the mist-strewn border with Turkey. Perhaps also paying tribute to the fractious closeness of family, the six-year-old Rayan Sarlak gives one of the all-time greatest child performances in cinema as the family’s younger son. While this was a worthy winner amid a wonderful year’s array of films, we thought we’d give you the results from a few of our own categories.

Best artistic use of black and white

I’m still a little bit conflicted on whether this one should go to Belfast, a surprisingly touching drama directed by Kenneth Branagh set on a residential street in the Northern Irish capital amid the beginning of the Troubles. It’s more a family drama than an exhaustive political account, but no the worse for demonstrating how history determines even the most private situations. The black and white gives a retro quality that is less nostalgic than it is a reminder of what violence and pain take away.

But for sheer artistic brio the award must go to The Tragedy of Macbeth, the festival’s closing gala, and the first ever film made by Joel Coen without his brother Ethan in tow. Denzel Washington plays the title role and Joel’s wife Frances McDormand plays Lady Macbeth, perhaps an in-joke given the character’s classic role in driving her husband’s solo ambitions. The dialogue moves at quite a pace, but the swirling fog, the jet-black ravens and the air of violent fantasy in the monochrome film stock convey enough of the dramatic atmosphere for anyone not already familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

A special mention for the least artistic use of black and white goes to Paris, 13th District. This is a partnership between Jacques Audiard, whose role on films like A Prophet make him a worthy contender for France’s most macho filmmaker, and scriptwriter Celine Sciamma of Portrait of a Lady of Fire, whose Petite Maman also premiered at the festival and which extends her interest in the workings of female subjectivity. This partnership surely had great potential. But Paris, 13th District is never more than a plodding romantic drama with neither romance nor drama, which believes itself more edgy than it actually is. Its black and white is thus only a pointless stylistic flourish designed to mask these deficiencies.

Worst misuse of 20th century history

There were some fantastic period dramas in this year’s festival, with Spencer giving an intense glimpse into Christmas Day 1992 when Diana decided to divorce Charles, and Power of the Dog marking Jane Campion’s return to the cinema with an anti-western set in Montana in 1925. Then there was Munich – Edge of War, an attempted resuscitation of the reputation of Neville Chamberlain, the man who decided that appeasing Hitler would save Europe. This large production, based on the book by Robert Harris, begins promisingly enough, with George McKay a nervy but patriotic translator roped into an espionage plot to steal Hitler’s secret briefing papers and thereby halt the invasion of Europe. Unfortunately the spy drama never really gets anywhere, leaving us instead with a tribute to Neville Chamberlain, played in stolid costume-drama form by Jeremy Irons. A closing intertitle helpfully informs us that appeasement was part of a chain of events that ‘eventually’ led to Hitler’s defeat. I must have missed the intertitle reminding the viewer that this was only after the fall of mainland Europe and the Holocaust. I can only guess that the target market is anyone who finds arguments about Winston Churchill’s legacy so interesting that they want to move onto a more challenging recipient of their admiration.

Best ‘spooky season’ picks for Halloween

Cannes festival winner Julia Ducournau comes in at a near-miss for this award with Titane. This blend of serial killer, body horror, sci-fi and art film would have been a sure-fire winner for an award for best sex scene with a car – not in a car, but with one. Yet in a film that is all about the difficulties of classification, what starts out as horror ends up as a love story. Even if it then blurs the line between sexual and familial love, by way of a fugitive killer breaking her own nose and hiding her own impregnation by a car – that is not a typo – to impersonate the missing child of a lonely firefighter.

And so our hands-down, guts out, scream-till-you-embarrass-the-person-next-to-you winner of this particular award is DASHCAM. It’s a sillier, bigger budget, somewhat less focused but still highly enjoyable follow up by Rob Savage to last year’s Host, which was set entirely within the 55 minutes of a deeply scary Zoom call. The premise behind DASHCAM is instead a livestream by freestyling rapper and online anti-masker controversialist Annie Hardy as she comes to Britain to visit a friend, steals his car and gives a ride to the wrong prematurely-aged stranger with a mystery disease. The limitations of the dashcam technology are used to exploit the fact that what we can’t see is often scarier than what we can. And the constant comment stream, although hard to follow alongside the action, is hilariously familiar to anyone who has ever participated in an online community. It will be interesting to see if this updating of the ‘found footage’ film (such as The Blair Witch Project) will offer filmmakers enough mileage to become a new subgenre of horror for the internet age. I’d say this gross-out, jump-scare film is definitely one to enjoy alongside a packed, groaning audience at the cinema, although I can’t help wondering if maybe the true authentic viewing experience would, for once, be a cracked iPhone with a dodgy connection.

The BFI London Film Festival took place 6 to 17 October 2021

Louis Bayman

Louis Bayman

Louis Bayman is a film critic and academic based at the University of Southampton. He is also 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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