Lewis Camley’s time at the EIFF ends with three of the major British films showcased at the festival. While not without their flaws, these films exemplify the strength of cinema in the UK in spite of its detractors, being every bit as engaging, artistic and experimental as their European and global counterparts. Though the government may call for more blockbusters in the mould of the Harry Potter series, British cinema is at its most interesting at the margins.
That said, Shadow Dancer from James Marsh, director of Man on Wire and the 1980 installment of Red Riding, stars Clive Owen in a fairly conventional film about the IRA and the Troubles in the 1990s. Adapted from Tom Bradby’s novel, the film explores the internal tensions of the IRA and MI5, as Andrea Riseborough plays Collette, a would-be terrorist along with her deeply involved family, whose childhood trauma leads her to a failed attack on London and detainment by the security services. Uncomfortably forced by Owen to act as informer on her own brother Gerry (Aidan Gillen, notable as The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti) she becomes a tormented double-agent, torn between flagging loyalty to the cause and her family, and to her son, who faces removal should she be jailed. After a dramatic and violent opening, the film flags a little: this feels like well worn ground, and other than its fairly recent setting, Marsh does little to lift it from the sterility of genre tropes – double crossing, skipped meetings, near misses, rife suspicion. Owen’s Mac, who first appears to be a successful, powerful agent, is revealed to be facing the same troubles as Collette: mistrust of his colleagues, subversion and increasingly a suspected double-cross. This allows the two narratives to dove-tail well and creates a slightly more complex plot with political intrigue, and prevents the film from merely being a critique of the internal violence of the IRA – with interrogator Kevin’s hunt for the informant generating fear and urgency. But for a quite stunning climax, an emergent romantic connection between Collette and Mac – asked by his superior (Gillian Anderson) if commitment to his informer is due to her “pretty face” – is needless and irksome, having little build up and not adding anything to the story. But strong performances, particularly from Riseborough, make up for a script that while tense occasionally lacks originality. The final twists reinvigorate a film that fell in to a predictable slumber after the energy of its beginning.
Similar in tone and political subject matter, Katarzyna Klimkiewicz’s Flying Blind hides its fear-ridden underbelly beneath a sultry and engaging love story. Helen McCrory brilliantly portrays Frankie, a military aerospace engineer developing a new drone bomber to be used in the Middle East. Perhaps unusually, the strength of her performance lies not in a discomfort with the impact of her work – quickly dismissed when questioned on her morals by a student after a lecture at the start of the film – but in her ability to create a believable, sensual connection with the younger Muslim student Kahil (Najib Oudghiri). Under pressure from family and colleagues to abort this unconventional romance, Frankie, already demonstrably head-strong and defiantly independent, falls in love and lust with the enigmatic younger man, despite his secretive nature. Of course, all of this begins to unravel as more and more hints at his radical beliefs emerge, threatening her safety and, worse it seems, her career. Leaving his character shrouded in mystery even at the conclusion, the director focuses more on the corrosive effect of powerful emotions on the life and work of a high-flying career woman, instead of the more hackneyed terror plot lurking below the surface. In spite of this, the pacing is often too slow to excite the audience, and while the love story is intriguing and well acted, it gets a little repetitive towards the end. Quality performances and very slick, crisp cinematography make this film about control, head and heart very watchable, even if the plot can’t quite match up.
Finally, I’m ending with Berberian Sound Studio an unusually experimental British (anti)horror film from director Peter Strickland. A film about film-making, or more accurately, about sound production and Foley artistry (for example, stabbing a watermelon to create the sound of stabbing a human), it stars the excellent Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a British sound engineer starting work on a gory Italian movie in the 70s. Tensions are rising right from the off, with oddly evasive staff at the studio, a forthright and menacing producer and a largely absent director troubling Gilderoy as he tries to settle in. We gradually learn that his background is in tame countryside recordings, his old studio was in a garden shed: all very quaint and English, in stark contrast to the over-the-top sexualised violence of this Italian picture, and herein lies the rub. Working intensely on a film which the audience never sees, we instead watch as Gilderoy is apparently sucked in and traumatised by his work, recreating the sounds of torture and torment for the film, either personally or by recording the shrill screams of the actresses to be dubbed in. Strickland has understandably tried to capture the cool fuzz of 70s Italian cinema, with nods particularly to the music and tropes of popular horror films emerging then; but in hiding the ‘film-within-the-film’ and setting Berberian almost entirely in the sound studio, he creates a sense of claustrophobia which is perhaps more unsettling than overblown gore could ever be. The deconstruction of sound is well executed also; the audience constantly tantalised by the internal film’s narration and dialogue though never offered the visual release. However, while the ending twists and turns in revealing Gilderoy’s psychotic consumption, the film lacked clarity just a little too much, and I was left wondering exactly what had happened to him. References to his past and tweaked repeats of events occurring earlier in the film suggest some buried truth rather than a work-induced pain, but this is never cleared up. Conceptually fantastic and constructed with love and detail, this is a film for cinephiles and film academics to mull over and unpick, and a clever horror film which is hugely different from the bombardment of Hollywood slashers we’ve had for years.
So that’s all folks (see part 1 of this round-up here) The EIFF wrapped up over the weekend after a shower of awards and back-patting; and after a miserable flop in 2011, artistic director Chris Fujiwara, by all accounts, has resurrected the fortunes of this oldest of film festivals. The Saint has brought you only a small selection of the myriad films on show here, and has tried to give you a first glimpse of the films you’ll be watching over the coming weeks and months. We’ll hopefully be there again next year to do it all again.