Magazine article The Spectator

The Bigger Picture

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bigger Picture

Article excerpt

Peter Hoskin looks forward to the ever-more expansive London film festival

What used to be called the National Film Theatre, now BFI Southbank, is a weird sort of place.

On the outside it is unprepossessing to the point of ugliness: a concrete mass sitting beneath the southern end of Waterloo Bridge, squat against the Thames, where it sulks away from the sunlight and overhead traffic. Whereas, on the inside, it offers a pretty jumble of conveniences for its clientele: a grand upholstered auditorium; a scattering of more utilitarian screens; a digital library of film called the 'Mediatheque'; and a glassy bar and shop. The effect is rather like those 'Ascent of Man' diagrams that show the evolutionary links between monkeys and us, except in this case it's for the movie theatre business.

Yet for 11 days in October this peculiar building will be shrouded in Gauloise smoke and air kisses as it becomes the centre of London's cultural scene. By my count, a quarter of the BFI London Film Festival's 500-plus screenings will be held here, with the rest spread across 13 other venues in the capital. There will be movies from America, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Egypt and most places in between. The world is coming to London - just as it did for the Olympics.

Putting aside the quality of the films for now, the British Film Institute and its spiritual home on the Southbank deserve a successful festival. It has, on the whole, been a momentous year for the Institute. Its house magazine, Sight & Sound, recently published the results of its once-a-decade poll of critics and filmmakers to identify the best films of all time; Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) was deposed from the top spot for the first time in 50 years, replaced by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). But, more importantly, during this time of reduced state funding, the BFI sets about its task with little fuss, and even with some panache. An imaginative campaign to raise cash - in great and small amounts - for the restoration of several early Hitchcock films resulted in one of the best screening seasons that I've ever emptied my wallet on.

So what about the films at this 56th BFI London Film Festival? Much of the advance promotion is devoted to the two special 'galas' that will bookend the whole thing; both of which will be held at Leicester Square, presumably because there isn't enough glitz under Waterloo Bridge.

The first is for Tim Burton's latest film, Frankenweenie, a stop-motion animation about a boy and his deceased (but not for long) dog, which references the old Universal horror films of Karloff and Lugosi, right down to being in black and white. And the second is for Mike Newell's adaptation of Great Expectations, which is, y'know, Dickens. They're safe choices on the surface - both are big releases, autumnal in tone, and made with heavy British involvement - but there's actually some risk attached. Is this brilliant Burton (Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas) or terrible Burton (Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes)? Will this Great Expectations wilt in comparison to David Lean's 1946 version?

We shouldn't dwell on these questions for long, however, as the real action is to be found elsewhere. Michael Haneke's Amour may have hit the Cannes Film Festival first - as tends to happen - but the Palme d'Or it won hardly counts against seeing it on London screens. …

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