Reviewed today: Ballast, Country Wedding, Nucingen Haus, Ralph Fiennes Variety Award.
4.00pm: Country Wedding (official site)
Personally, I think everyone should stop being so beastly to Iceland: I suspect the recent attempts to blame them for the UK's economic collapse are just a shameless tactic to divert attention away from the real culprits closer to home. Admittedly, most of my recent affection for Iceland comes from seeing one of its comedians, Snorri Kristjansson, performing at Edinburgh this summer. I've been keeping an eye on his LiveJournal throughout this crisis to see how he's been getting on: he appears to be just about keeping his head above water, apart from that one time that they dragged him onto Sky News to apologise on behalf of his country.
Anyway, my attending this matinee hopefully shoves a few more quid into the Icelandic coffers. (I may not be the only person who thinks this way, as the screening's moved at the last minute from the Odeon's screen 1 to the larger screen 2.) Country Wedding tells the story of the wedding day of Inga (Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir) and Bardi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). They've decided to do it posh, and organised a couple of buses to take their respective families to a small country church for the service. Part way along the journey, Bardi reveals that they'll have to change their route because he can't travel through tunnels with his claustrophobia. It turns out to be the least of the day's problems.
Weddings are a sure-fire source of comedy the world over - for example, I saw a Russian one here at the Festival back in 2000. The Icelandic equivalent has all the harsh beauty and wild mood swings you'd expect. First time director Valdís Óskarsdóttir (previously best known as an editor on films as diverse as Festen and Mongol) collaborated with her cast on the script, and shot the whole thing in a mad seven-day rush. The result has a fabulous manic energy, without ever going over the top with it. The two families share all manner of potentially comic problems - infidelity, disputed parentage, closeted homosexuality, alcoholism, senile dementia, all that good funny stuff - but Óskarsdóttir keeps the revelations and connections carefully spaced throughout the movie, so that it builds up a fine head of steam over its running time.
She's also got a couple of secret weapons up her sleeve. The first is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, veteran of the Dogme films. He does wonders with the Icelandic light, giving the exterior scenes a burned-out look unlike anything I can recall seeing before. And the second is England's very own The Tiger Lillies, who provide the film's song score. Like all of their best work - and like the film itself - it's all jolly accordions on the surface, but dig a little deeper and you uncover songs with titles like The Crack Of Doom and Bastard. Together they ensure that the film looks and sounds great even while it's making you laugh, which is always a nice combination to aim for.
6.00pm: Ralph Fiennes Variety Award
A warning: starting today, I'm having to cut back a little on the Festival coverage owing to pressure of work. So, expect an average of two reviews a day rather than three. But even with this reduced schedule, I only had twenty minutes to make the journey across the river from the Odeon West End to BFI Southbank. Still, I'm not the only one having to cope with awkwardly spaced appointments. At 6pm this evening, Ralph Fiennes was on stage at BFI Southbank for this interview: by 8pm he was on stage at the National Theatre next door playing Oedipus. Still, at least we knew there was no chance of the interview overrunning.
In a long career spanning both stage and screen, Fiennes has worked with all the greats: Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Anthony Minghella, and The Belated Birthday Girl's Fred Perry bag (as seen on the left shoulder of the woman to the right of the above screengrab from David Cronenberg's Spider). So this event is to present him with the Variety UK Achievement In Film Award, and to get him to talk a bit about that career. Unfortunately, it's hard to avoid comparisons with yesterday's Robert Carlyle interview. Carlyle is a perfectly grounded Everyman figure, without the slightest trace of pretension. Fiennes... well, he can't even pronounce Ralph properly, can he? Nevertheless, he's obviously thought a bit about his craft, and there are a couple of interesting insights in the interview.
The event starts with a short clip reel, presumably intended to show off Fiennes' range: unfortunately, seeing so many of his characters back to back, you start to realise that a certain amount of tight-lipped carefully-hidden emotion is common to a lot of them. Once in a while he takes on a part where he gets to cut loose, and that's where things start to get interesting. He confesses that when he first started playing Voldemort in the Harry Potter films, he tried giving the character some subtlety and nuance, until director Mike Newell told him "forget it!" and suggested he just ran up to Daniel Radcliffe while shouting a lot.
With the deadline of a theatrical appearance hanging over the interview, there's a fair bit of discussion of the relative merits of theatre and film acting. Fiennes likes aspects of both: the discipline of theatre is a foundation for everything he does, but the one-take pressure of film gives you a different sort of adrenalin rush. It's interesting to watch Fiennes treat the interview like a theatrical performance in its own right: a lot of his answers are directed towards the audience rather than interviewer Ali Jaafar, and he talks about the energy between an audience and a performer being apparent even in a situation like this. (Which is funny, given that Jaafar is one of the most comically lethargic interviewers I've ever seen on this stage, and wouldn't know 'energy' if you put four million volts through 'im.)
Fiennes doesn't tell us much we don't already know, but his answers are engagingly honest. At one point an audience member congratulates him on his choice of roles, saying that he couldn't think of a single turkey he'd appeared in. "I can!" laughs Fiennes, and obligingly pauses for a couple of seconds to let us guess before naming the obvious one. But on the whole it's a fairly deferential interview, with nobody daring to comment on, say, the way Fiennes can sometimes turn into Leonard Rossiter when he's not careful. (Some of us were saying that long before Peter Serafinowicz, you know.)
By 7pm, Fiennes has been hustled out of the building via that special door in NFT1 that nobody ever uses, leaving the audience with a small bonus: a 'sizzle reel' (I believe that's the industry term) for Stephen Daldry's upcoming The Reader, starring Fiennes and Kate Winslet. By all accounts it's a rather troubled production, so this exclusive presentation (complete with irritating "Property Of TWC" watermark) is of some interest. It consists of around 15 minutes of scenes from the film - most of them, it has to be said, from the early part of the movie where Fiennes' character is played by a younger man. This is the sort of presentation they use in trade shows, and it appears to happily spunk away every major plot point of the story. Sadly, it looks like Fiennes is in buttoned-down mode again for this tastefully dull Holocaust drama, so the plot spoilage isn't that much of an issue for me in the end. Give me his much less tasteful turn in In Bruges any day.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - William James is a writer who wins a house in Chile in a game of cards. The perfect place to take his sick wife for her health, and for him to work on his new novel. When they reach the house, they are greeted by a strange housekeeper telling of bizarre house rules. How many other inhabitants there are in the house is unclear. Maybe there are 5 or 6, maybe there are 100 - plus the ghosts. Or maybe this is all part of James and his wife's dreams. Or the novel James is writing. Or is it all just stories made up by the people James is overhearing talking about him in a restaurant many years later? Boundaries between layers of reality and fantasy are blurred, and there is surrealism reminscent of Bunuel in this visually striking and stylish but self-consciously obscure film.
There was a dreamlike and soporific quality to the film, just as there was to the titular house, and I have to admit to occasional drifting into a semi-sleep state, but I don't think that any narrative disconnects were caused by my missing anything, and in any case narrative coherence would not seem to be what Nucingen Haus is about. The cinematography was quite gorgeous, particularly the use of the skies. But for me the use of the surreal verged on parodic and I wasn't quite certain what I made of it.
After the screening I heard someone say "Well, that was rubbish" and the reply "I thought it was great". I suspect this is a film which will easily divide opinions. Personally, I was never bored, nor particularly annoyed (in spite of its pretentiousness), but I don't think I quite bought into it. But maybe I just need to sleep on it...
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - These are not good days for all things connected to Iceland. First of all their banks go and blow our local authorities slush funds, then we have Kerry Katona's apparent car crash appearance on This Morning last week. Alright that's a bit bonkers, but then so are all the characters in this film.
The set up is a journey to a wedding with the bride's friends and family in one coach and the groom's in the other. All they have to do is keep out of each others' faces, find the church and get the knot tied. On all counts that proves a complete impossibility, with one fracas, wrong direction, and revelation following after another. As a whole this all adds up to a very amusing tale, not least because as grotesque as all the characters are at times, we laugh because we can see elements of our own extended families in there. Although not a Lars Von Trier film, this has all the elements of him at his best, and I can't give it higher praise than that.
Two other points are that the Icelandic landscape is incredibly bleak in a stunning kind of way, and that they all drive very slowly over there. Still I suppose with all that beautiful scenery and careful driving, that would explain why mums go to Iceland.
Ballast (official site)
The Belated Birthday Girl - Apparently, the cinematography in Ballast won a jury award at Sundance this year. I'm afraid I can't really comment on it, as from Row C of Odeon West End 1, I found the hand-held camerawork made me feel queasy, and so I watched most of the film through my fingers and with one eye closed - that's when I didn't have both closed to get some respite from the nausea. So I may not be the best critic of this film.
But I don't feel that my problems with the shaky-cam were the only reason why I didn't enjoy Ballast. Aside from the camerawork, the lack of any kind of musical score, and the long wordless stretches, the miserablist storyline about the death of one twin and what remained then for those he left behind (his surviving twin, his son, and the mother who kept father and son apart with a court order) and the lack of sympathy for or connection with the characters made for pretty dismal viewing. The performances from the non-professional cast were, to be fair, very creditable, but this wasn't my sort of film at all.