Reviewed today: City Of Tiny Lights, The Informer, Trespass Against Us.
Back in 1999, I raved about Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland, insisting it was the first film I'd seen that captured what living in London actually felt like back then. I'd like to suggest that Pete Travis' thriller City Of Tiny Lights achieves the same thing for the London of 2016. It'd be fascinating to compare the two films to get a handle on how the city's changed in the last 17 years: for starters, you could learn a lot comparing the colour palettes of both the movie and the cast.
It starts off as nothing less than a good old fashioned film noir: a private eye in a scruffy office, being handed a new case by a mysterious dame. Except here the PI has the un-Chandleresque name of Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed), and the dame's answer to the question "how did you hear about me?" is "I've got an app". Melody (Cush Jumbo) is concerned about a friend of hers, a prostitute who's been missing for several hours. Tommy follows her trail to a hotel room with a dead man in it - a man with connections to Lovely (James Floyd), a former friend from a gang Tommy used to hang out with twenty years ago. So now, along with all the complications of what's turned into a murder case, he has to deal with the circumstances of how the gang fell apart, with particular reference to his not-quite-girlfriend of the time, Shelley (Billie Piper).
Adapted by Patrick Neate from his novel, City maintains its authentic noir feel throughout, even down to the odd bit of handwaving required to make some of the plotting work. But it's also a pitch-perfect photographic study of London in 2016, with Felix Wiedemann's cinematography catching the scruffy beauty of the city at its finest. (Pete Travis admitted in his Q&A that he wanted to make a Wong Kar-wai film, but in London.) It's also got a strong handle on the issues that drive this city - racial tensions, petty drug-dealing, gentrification - carefully weaving them into the fabric of the plot, rather than just using them as trendy decoration.
The supporting performances are all great, but this is undoubtedly Riz Ahmed's film. He's an actor who currently seems to be inescapable, acting in all the things in much the same way that Jack Thorne is writing all the things. He makes for a terrific lead here, balancing toughness and vulnerability to a degree I haven't seen before. He's the beating heart that ties all the elements together into a remarkable film. In the old days, a movie like this with such a rock-solid sense of the city it was made would have been a shoo-in for a London Film Festival Gala presentation, and I'm not quite sure why it wasn't one.
6.30pm: The Informer [entire film, talkie version]
Curse you, naff nineties earworm! (Actually, it's the second one of the day, as earlier on I had to explain to The Belated Birthday Girl about Billie Piper's early pop career. That aside, my position has remained unchanged over the last few years: when LFF Galas cost twenty pounds and up these days, and you don't even get free chocolate and water with them any more, the Archive Gala is still worth splashing out on. Not only is the film less likely to be in your local multiplex a couple of weeks later, but also it tends to be a silent film, so you get the bonus of live music too.
This year's gala comes from 1929: it's a British film with a multinational cast and crew, set in Ireland in the early days of The Unpleasantness. The opening intertitle flat out tells you that any Irish political meeting back then typically ended in gunfire, and within five minutes of the opening titles Francis McPhillip (Carl Harbord) has accidentally plugged the Chief of Police. He has to go into hiding, leaving his gal Katie Fox (Lya De Putti) to fall into the clutches of fellow party member Gypo Nolan (played by Lars Hanson, a Michael Fassbender lookalike but with the added bonus that as this is a silent film, his accent won't go to shit in the third act). When McPhillip briefly returns to Katie for a final goodbye, Gypo misreads the situation and decides to keep Katie for himself by dobbing McPhillip in to the police. Things get awkward from that point.
The Informer falls into that weird little period between silent and sound, when films were sometimes made simultaneously in both formats. We got to see a little of the talkie version of the film as part of this screening (follow the link above to see the whole thing), and it looks terrible: apart from what the BFI's Bryony Dixon coyly referred to as 'issues with the accents', any attempt at purely visual storytelling seems to have been ditched purely because characters can say things out loud. By comparison, the silent version uses lots of simple visual devices to drive the plot along: a smouldering cigarette end, or a half-torn wanted poster. Director Arthur Robison keeps things moving throughout with a surprisingly mobile camera and some pacy (for the time) editing.
For this Archive Gala screening, the main attraction is a new score, composed by Garth Knox and performed live by his six-piece band. Musically, it plays up the Oirishness of the film a bit (an inevitable consequence when pipes, fiddle and flute make up three of your six instruments). But Knox has some solid themes that he uses well throughout the film, as well as some witty ways of dealing with what happens when the music is actually performed on screen. The result is well worth twenty quid of anyone's money, even without chocolate.
9.15pm: Trespass Against Us [trailer]
We seamlessly transition from a Michael Fassbender lookalike playing a character called Gypo, to the actual Michael Fassbender playing a member of the travelling community in darkest Cheltenham. Chad is trying to do the best he can for his famiy: he takes the kids to school each day so they get the education he didn't, and he's looking to resettle them all in a less dangerous location. What makes their current location dangerous is Chad's father Colby (Brendan Gleeson), who's turned their camp into the central hub of a massive crime spree. Nothing's going to improve in Chad's life until he can find a way of breaking away from Colby.
Adam Smith's first film (he's previously worked in telly and music videos) is a right old mishmash of stuff. Primarily, it's a family melodrama, but it's also an immersive study of the travelling culture, and an excuse for a series of riproaring car chases (which is where the film's composer, Tom Rowlands of the Chemical Brothers, really comes into his own). You could just about see all this holding together if you had an extraordinary performance at the centre, one which kept our sympathies for Chad despite all the dodginess he gets up to. Michael Fassbender tries his best on that score, but he doesn't quite manage to pull it off.
The film's real problem is that it does have an extraordinary performance at its centre, but it's the wrong one. Brendan Gleeson overbalances the film just by being too good a villain as Colby. He's the instigator behind all the camp's criminal acts, and is systematically undoing all the good of Chad's children's schooling by telling them lies about everything up to and including the flatness of the world. Though it presumably wasn't the original plan, the whole story ends up revolving around him, and you find yourself waiting for some sort of payback for his wickedness. Which makes it all the more irritating when it never comes, the film instead fizzling out in a whimsical feelgood finale that feels like a betrayal of the drama that preceded it. Undoubtedly, Trespass Against Us doesn't feel like anything you've ever seen before: that's not always a good thing, though.