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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #7

The latest from two very different British auteurs, plus a Palestine underdog saga, comprise the latest entry in our Toronto correspondence.
Fernando F. Croce
Dear Danny,
Happy to hear of your findings, especially the new films by Federico Veiroj and Kazik Radwanski, whose previous features (A Useful Life and Tower, respectively) struck me as brimming with distinctive talent and sensitivity. I’m eager to catch up with both of these young directors’ visions, but first let me tell you about a veteran’s vision, namely Terence Davies’ in the visually lambent, deeply affecting Sunset Song. A passion project for the great British filmmaker with a decade-long production history of false starts, this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 Scottish novel emerges as a full-bodied reverie of faces and landscapes, splendor and pain. Taking place in a bucolic Scottish village in the years leading up to World War I, Davies’ sprawling narrative centers characteristically on a sensitive gaze absorbing and challenging a dour world: Young Chris (Agyness Deyn), a farm lass whose lucidity and vivaciousness make for a stark contrast with the fundamental violence of her severe father (Peter Mullan). Her mum (Daniela Nardini) is pushed into suicide and her brother (Jack Greenless) escapes abuse by leaving home, but Chris must endure domestic harshness until an incident allows her a hopeful new beginning with a tenderhearted beau (Kevin Guthrie). Then the battleground calls, as seemingly inescapable as a darkening season, all “part of life’s plan…”
I can think of several fine films I’ve seen at this year’s TIFF that could be watched non-detrimentally on, say, a laptop’s monitor or a regular TV set. I could not, however, imagine seeing Sunset Song any other way than on the vastest of screens. Deyn’s visage, at first smooth like porcelain yet before our eyes accumulating a sense of lived experience that seems to age and strengthen character and actress alike from within. The moment in which Mullan’s patriarch, debilitated by a stroke but more oppressive than ever, reaches out to his daughter for a caress that suddenly becomes a grip. The verdant and golden textures of the farming hills, now shimmering, now muddy, now carpeted with snow, now set ablaze. These are things that cry for a massive canvas, and I imagine that Davies, who combines digital cameras with 65mm film, would’ve savored the fact that it premiered here in an IMAX theater usually reserved for the blockbusters he professes to despise. It’s odd to say this about someone whose oeuvre is so linked to music, but Davies, with his direct emotions and gestures, is the working filmmaker I can most see doing silent cinema. (In fact the opening shot, in which the moving camera locates the heroine in an endless ocean of wheat, points up the film's alliance to Murnau.) Charting a more linear trajectory than the director’s autobiographical, memory-infused work, Sunset Song has a far more conventional flow. Still, the characters’ inner melodies ring plangently all the way to the indelible closing image of grace.
Davies may seek harmony in the past, but Ben Wheatley, a quite different British artist, contemplates potential apocalypses still ahead with gleeful anticipation. It’s ironic then that High-Rise, his new and most accomplished film, is not a futuristic tale but something of a mad period piece, reaching back not to the 17th-century Civil War of his previous A Field in England but to the kaleidoscopic 1970s of author J.G. Ballard’s cult novel. Brutalist concrete on the outside and short-circuiting luxury on the inside, the arching tower of the title accommodates a punchy array of dwellers racing toward barbarism, from choleric documentarians to promiscuous swells. At the top of this blackly comic vertical allegory is a limping architect (Jeremy Irons) envisioning “a crucible for change,” while a middle-class young doctor (Tom Hiddleston) moves between floors and witnesses the social fabric turning into an indoors bacchanalia/wasteland. Operating with what a character early on describes as “a build-up of negative energy,” Wheatley opens swiftly and keeps accelerating—in sharp contrast to the icy detachment of Ballard’s novel, his adaptation is riotously immersive, at times to its own detriment. (The montage-propelled thrust leads to frequent pile-ups and dead ends, the shape of the film suggesting a circular trail of hammer blows.) There’s no denying the sheer unholy vigor of Wheatley’s view of breakdown, however, which boasts dashes of jubilant meanness—my favorite is a Versailles-themed costume party scored to string quartet versions of ABBA songs—reminiscent of Joseph Losey at his most sulfuric. I wasn’t much of fan of Wheatley’s previous films (Kill List, Sightseers), but the ferociousness and scope of High-Rise make me want to go back and revisit them.
No such provocations are to be found in The Idol, an entirely unsurprising underdog yarn nevertheless sculptured with gratifying polish and sincerity. Dramatizing the rise to stardom of real-life Palestinian singing sensation Muhammad Assaf, Hany Abu-Assad opens in Gaza in 2005, the year of his existential thriller Paradise Now. On a more relaxed and optimistic mood, the director promptly acknowledges the implications of using volatile terrain as a backdrop for a showbiz crowd-pleaser (“People are dying and you’re singing?” scolds one character) before setting out to outline Assaf’s ascension from angelic-voiced urchin to fugitive TV contestant and headline-grabbing success story. Beginning as a sort of drier, less slick Slumdog Millionaire with scrappy glimpses of weddings, mosques, and mechanic shops (to say nothing of a vivacious feminism embodied by the protagonist’s spunky sister, played by a movie-stealing Hiba Atallah), the film finds its groove midway through with the teenaged Assaf becoming determined to reach beyond the check points and barbed-wire fences of his existence. The escape into Cairo for Arab Idol tryouts works up a modicum of tension, and Abu-Assad cheerfully embraces the kitschy flash of Middle Eastern knockoffs of bad American shows. (A barbed early joke has an audition via faulty Skype being mistaken for a smoke-choked bombing.) The Idol rolls a bit too smoothly on its rags-to-riches rails, but there’s nothing disingenuous about its celebratory hope.
That’s about it for now, my friend. Can’t wait for more of your recommendations.


Ben WheatleyCorrespondencesFestival CoverageHany Abu-AssadTIFFTIFF 2015Terence Davies
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