The “Mostly British Film Festival” unspools February 13-20 at the Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento Street, in San Francisco. Offering premieres of over two dozen new films (The Lunchbox), old favorites (Sliding Doors), documentaries (The Spirit of ’45) plus a conversation with actor Michael York, the festival showcases some terrific and veddy British films.
The opening night presentation, Le Week-End, is a bittersweet drama about an aging couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) visiting Paris on their anniversary to reinvigorate their marriage. They share some comic adventures—such as running out on the bill at a fancy restaurant—but also fight bitterly. As they re-evaluate their lives and their relationship, they also disclose secrets that may permanently alter things between them. Veering from comedy to drama, often within a single scene, Le Week-End is heartrending throughout. Broadbent and Duncan are both outstanding, and they handle the demands of Hanif Kureishi’s wistful script with great aplomb.
The closing night film, Summer in February, is a handsomely mounted period film, set in 1913, and is based on a true story. When Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning) arrives in Cornwall to stay with her brother Joey (Max Deacon), she inspires artist A.J. Munnings (Dominic Cooper) to paint her. His best friend Gilbert (Dan Stevens), a war veteran, also falls under the spell of her beauty. But Gilbert hesitates to tell her how he feels about her, and A.J. proposes to Florence. As the melodramatic love triangle plays out, Summer in February turns a bit soapy. The first half of the film is quite strong, showing how manners drive emotion. Florence, a budding artist herself, is attracted to the freedom the irresistible A.J., stuffy Gilbert, and carefree Joey have in Cornwall, where they can be bold and brave and are free to do what they like. But once Florence is captured both in paint and in marriage by A.J., he becomes possessive, and she becomes trapped. Alas, the film becomes risible depicting her despair. Still, while Summer in February is not a memorable or distinguished film, it is a moderate diversion for lovers of British costume dramas.
One of the best films in the festival is also one of the bleakest. The Selfish Giant (February 17, 5:00 pm), based (loosely) on an Oscar Wilde story, has Arbor (Conner Chapman) as a feisty, foul-mouthed, and medicated 13-year-old. His best friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a shy teen who comes from a poor family. Outcasts at school, they support each other, even as parents and teachers remark on Arbor being a bad influence. Their bond is palpable, especially when they start spending their days scrounging up scrap metal for Kitten (Sean Gilder). While Arbor dreams of big money—and helping Swifty get his family out of debt—Swifty is more interested in helping Kitten win a horserace. Writer/director Clio Barnard coaxes a blistering performance out of Chapman, who is all piss and vinegar; just watch how he handles two police officers that question him about stolen telephone wire. Yet there are also some incredibly tender scenes with the two friends playing on a trampoline, or between Arbor and his mum. Barnard creates a keen sense of time and place; viewers can feel the cold blowing through Arbor’s ripped jacket. The Selfish Giant may be grim as it depicts the fates of its sad, troubled characters, but it is also extremely gripping.
The Mostly British Film Festival includes two noteworthy Irish dramas. Run and Jump (February 18, 5:00 pm) is a feel good comedy-drama about a family headed by the cheery Vanetia (Maxine Peake). As the film opens, Vanetia’s husband Conor (Edward MacLiam) is returning home after suffering a stroke. Ted (Will Forte), an American neuropsychologist, has come to live with the family to document Conor’s recovery. While the film has a few didactic scenes of Ted and his handheld camera discussing the case, Run and Jump soon settles into its gentle, easygoing rhythms.
Director (and San Francisco native) Steph Green alternates between scenes of Ted helping Conor out of his shell with Vanetia helping Ted out of his. And after the matriarch and the doctor go bicycling in the rain, a romantic friendship develops between them. Run and Jump also includes a subplot involving Vanetia and Conor’s gay teenage son, Lenny (Brendan Morris) struggling with his self-worth, and bullying. These episodes are poignant and dramatic, but Lenny’s storyline is a bit underdeveloped. Green may have crammed too many elements into her film. Moreover, she wallpapers the soundtrack with pop tunes to provoke emotions, which would come naturally without them. Despite these flaws, Run and Jump is an enjoyable and engaging film, buoyed by the charismatic performance by Peake.
What Richard Did (February 18, 9:30 pm) asks viewers to wait on tenterhooks for the rich, handsome title character (Jack Reynor) to commit a shocking crime that will forever change his life. This absorbing chamber drama shows how Richard reacts to, and grapples with, the consequences of his actions. It would, of course, spoil the film to say what it is that Richard does, but director Lenny Abrahamson, working from Kevin Power’s source novel Bad Day in Blackrock, creates an intimacy before and after Richard’s crime, and he freights every scene with meaning. As the film’s protagonist, Reynor is excellent, never hitting a false note as this quietly devastating drama builds to its intense climax.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.