The London Film Festival: How Was It For Me?

Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone won the Best Film Award.


After screening over 200 films in just 12 days, the 56th London Film Festival drew to a close yesterday evening with a screening of Mike Newell’s Great Expectations.

This year’s event marked a number of changes, not the least of which was the arrival of new Festival Director, Clare Stewart, who needed to make her mark quickly and definitively, especially during a year when the eyes of the world had been on London to an unprecedented extent.  So did she succeed?  And how was the event for a humble BFI member and movie-goer like myself?

On the upside …….

The BFI’s new website made booking tickets infinitely better than previously.  After last year’s shenanigans, I didn’t feel I could trust the website and booked by post.  I needn’t have bothered.  On the first day of booking, the site struggled for the first half hour – and after that, it coped admirably.  It was also able to tell me which screenings I would be attending and, even better, my actual seat numbers: if I’d believed the site last year, I would have thought I didn’t have any tickets whatsoever!

This year’s film selection was both strong and diverse.  There were certainly plenty of films that I wanted to see, which meant there were a number I couldn’t fit in: End Of Watch, Robot And Frank, Seven Psychopaths were just three.  And this year, there was a treat for members in the form of an extra screening of Great Expectations on the day after the festival finished, close enough to still feel part of the action.  You had to enter a ballot to get a ticket and only the first one was free (second tickets were £8.50) but it was a nice idea and I hope they repeat it.

The festival awards were more prominent this year and, with two winners (Rust And Bone, Beasts Of The Southern Wild) due on general release shortly, it’s reassuring that films of quality will reach a wider audience instead of being limited to the festival circuit.

It was good to see the return of Odeon West End as a main festival venue.  Its absence over the past couple of years meant that too many screenings had been crammed into Vue West End, which was less than ideal.

Condensing the festival into 12 days was, to my mind, a good move.  It meant that it packed a bigger punch and had a stronger momentum, as well as meaning it was less likely to clash with other events during the month.  If there was a downside, it was more screenings later at night: while this didn’t affect me personally, I can see that this could have been an issue, especially given the train problems on Day 3.

This year’s audiences, in my experience, were more inclined to applaud the films, which I was delighted to see.  And this wasn’t confined to gala premieres.  Although Empire Leicester Square resounded to applause at the end of Hyde Park On Hudson – and I was more than happy to join in! – it would have been rude not to, given the presence of the director and some of the cast.  But there was plenty of applause at the afternoon screenings I attended of both Quartet and Argo, the latter attracting enthusiastic clapping at its climax, as well as the end.  Clearly I wasn’t the only one engrossed in the movie.

On the downside …….

It may sound like I’m forever banging on about it, but yet again the Screen Talks strand still failed to impress, even though two events were added to the schedule after it had been launched.  This made a grand total of just four and, while they included a couple of good ones – Marion Cotillard and Viggo Mortensen – it still seemed thin, given the number of big names that were in town to support their movies.  How, for example, did BAFTA manage to persuade Dustin Hoffman to do a Life In Pictures interview, when his directorial debut had premiered the night before?

For the first time, the festival divided its films into a number of themed categories – love, dare, thrill, family etc. While I understand the thinking behind it, I’m not sure that it wholly resonated with film-goers and the reason could simply be that there were too many to make them distinctive.

The new commercial for the festival, which preceded every screening, was based on the theme of Feel It.  It got the message across, but it could have been for any film festival anywhere in the world.  What it didn’t give was a flavour of London – especially in such a big year for the city – and, while I don’t disagree it was right to replace the one voiced by Michael Caine a couple of years ago, his East End tones left you in no doubt as to where you were.

So ………?

On the whole, Clare Stewart’s first year at the helm was a success.  There were some definite improvements and she brought in some new elements as well.   Admittedly, some worked well, some less so, but at least she was brave enough to try in the first place.

Now, Clare, about the Screen Talks ………..

And a thank you …….

………… to the organisers of the gala screening of Hyde Park On Hudson.  In the days prior to the premiere, I’d been laid low with a heavy cold and, although I managed to make it to Leicester Square for my red carpet moment, I still had a cough like a 50-a-day girl.  So the bottle of water waiting for me at my seat was exactly what I needed to prevent my coughing fits becoming catastrophic and distracting for the rest of the audience.  And thank you also to the two people who should have sat next to me on the night but never showed.  Your bottles of water went to a very good cause as well.


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