All arthouse roads lead to Keswick
It’s particularly lovely in Keswick from late February and into March, not least because that’s when the annual Keswick Film Festival will be taking place, and for their 20th anniversary event they’ve got a truly stunning line-up.
It’s not often that you find a festival that appears to have been curated especially for you. Glastonbury, for instance, always manages to throw a spanner in the works by shoving a Coldplay or a U2 on to spoil things, and I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve sat through crushingly unfunny improv sets at the Edinburgh Fringe. But the clever people behind this year’s Keswick Film Festival appear to have tapped directly into The Crack’s ‘Very Favourite Films of Recent Times’ list because on flicking through their programme I’ve found myself exclaiming: “Love it! Love it! Love it!” I’m talking about stuff like Disobedience. This is the eagerly awaited follow up to the dazzling ‘A Fantastic Woman’ from director Sebastián Lelio and it’s no less a nuanced and empathetic piece. It stars Rachel Weisz as an edgy New York based photographer who returns home to London, and the closed Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised, for the funeral of her father. She receives a chilly reception on arrival at the family home, but rather than presenting us with a reductive outsider versus oppressive religious system narrative, Lelio gives us an understated study of desire and devotion.
A previous Crack Film of the Month arrives in the shape of Dogman. For this affecting and darkly humorous character study, Italian director Matteo Garronne returns to the scuzzy, heightened social realism of his most celebrated work, crime picture ‘Gomorrah’, while retaining the fable-like quality of his last film ‘Tale of Tales’.
One of the most talked about features of recent months is Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which is another film we loved and a film which is sure to go down as one of the key works of our times. It’s an unhinged political satire with the former hip-hop artist turned writer-director giving us a dizzying melange of absurdism. Beneath all the bizarre content, however, is an anti-capitalist message that feels all too vital and timely.
Documentaries have always been a big part of the festival and one of the very best this year is Agnes Varda’s Faces Places. It sees the veteran Nouvelle Vague director take a freewheeling road trip accompanied by photographer/artist JR, whose work consists of reproducing huge pictures of his subjects and attaching them to the front and sides of buildings. They travel around in the artist’s van, wittily painted like a giant camera with a functioning print slot in the side, visiting various villages and asking the locals about their life experiences. The people they encounter are invariably hospitable, full of fascinating stories, and game for having their images reproduced and mounted.
A sense of tragedy surrounds Chinese filmmaker Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. He wrote, directed and edited the film – it was his debut feature – but, tragically, the 29 year-old killed himself shortly after the project was completed. He left us with a profoundly moving drama that follows four miscreants over the course of a single day in the country’s industrial north, and it’s a film that has received a whole host of five-star reviews.
Another debut feature that has also been setting critics’ antennae a-twitching is James Gardner’s Jellyfish. It stars the excellent Liv Hill as British teenager Sarah Taylor in a gritty drama which owes something to Ken Loach. Sarah is the primary carer in an economically and emotionally depressed family and works in a low-rent games parlour in the seaside town of Margate. At school her drama teacher sees that there’s something to harness in the dogged derision she spews at everyone around her, and tells her to prepare a stand-up routine act as her final project…
Arriving at the festival trailing a whole load of awards behind it is Gustav Möller’s nerve-jangling thriller The Guilty, which manages to wring an incredible amount of tension out of its constrained setting. It takes place inside an emergency call centre where a police officer, who is temporarily assigned to emergency dispatch duty, takes a desperate call from a kidnapped woman. And the awards might not have stopped coming because ‘The Guilty’ is Denmark’s official entry into the Oscar Foreign Language Film race.
Our Film of the Year in 2016 was László Nemes’s ‘Son of Saul’ and he’s followed it up with Sunset, an atmospheric mystery drama set in pre-first-world-war Budapest. It tells the story of Írisz Leiter, a 20-year-old orphan who returns to her hometown for the first time since childhood and discovers that, not only does she have a brother, but he’s said to have murdered a count five years earlier and gone into hiding. Her parents owned a prestigious hat shop in the city, and following their death in a fire many years earlier the store still carries their name but no other trace of them — something Írisz wishes to rectify.
There’s also plenty of intrigue in Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, which is based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1982. It’s a quasi-feminist take on the infamous tale with the excellent ChloëSevingny in the titular role.
And we simply must find room to give Sometimes Always Nevera mention because it’s the latest from director Carl Hunter, an old friend of the festival, who has allowed Keswick a pre-release showing. Written by the estimable Frank Cottrell Boyce it has a truly knockout cast in the shape of Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnery and Alice Lowe and concerns a father (Nighy) trying to unravel the mystery of his missing son. (It will be followed by a Q&A with the director and a member of the cast.)
We’ve just selected some of our personal highlights from this year’s festival, so be sure to check out their website for the full programme. Screenings take place at the Alhambra, Keswick’s charming 105 year-old cinema, as well as the Theatre by the Lake’s grand Main House and intimate Studio, and the giant screen at nearby Rheged – which makes for a visually stunning experience. Note: This year, a number of Keswick hotels and B&Bs have offered discounts on accommodation for the festival weekend, and you can find news on these from their website, too.
Keswick Film Festival, Thursday 28 February-Sunday 3 March. keswickfilmfestival.org