Fiona Mountford

The London Film Festival lets you watch films early – and brag about them

The London Film Festival lets you watch films early – and brag about them
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (Netflix)
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 October plays host to one of my very favourite jamborees across the entire spectrum of the arts, namely the London Film Festival.

One of the myriad joys of an arts festival is the tantalising opportunity it offers to deviate from our cultural strait and narrow and try something out of the ordinary. We can rest easy in our festival wanderings, knowing that everything has been curated by experts in the field. Under this reassuring aegis of selection, we find ourselves emboldened to roam far and wide, often encountering en route the very artists who have made the work, as festivals love nothing better than to offer a Q&A in congenial surroundings. 

A theatre critic by trade – and thus no stranger to the mother of all festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe – I have been a devotee of the London Film Festival for more than 20 years now, customarily seeing a film each afternoon before heading off to the theatre in the evening. If I’m feeling particularly jaunty, I might even fit in two screenings before curtain up at 7pm.

What I cherish about the LFF is the chance to catch things that don’t turn up in the general weekly churn of releases, even in the most devotedly arthouse of cinemas. Indeed, a significant number of the works shown at the LFF do not go on to receive UK distribution at all, making it a catch-it-while-you-can opportunity. 

Not only does this offer a welcome respite from the tyranny of box office hits, it also signals a brief lull in the hegemony of anglophone cinema. The LLF opens its arms to films from all around the globe, making it a glorious time to watch the sort of foreign, subtitled work that will never set the cash registers ringing at the local multiplex. I cherish this annual glimpse into the cultural landscape of other countries. 

One of this year’s standout LLF selections is Compartment No. 6, which follows a Finnish student as she undertakes a lengthy journey on a Russian sleeper train in the early post-Soviet era. A glorious piece of filmmaking, not least for the poetic way it captures the hazy liminality of long-distance travel, it is nonetheless unlikely ever to be granted the 34 daily screenings that the new Bond film enjoyed last weekend at my local Odeon.

As any culture lover will tell you, it’s not only seeing the art that provides the thrills, but the chance to see it early and brag about it.

Each year there are multiple chances to catch award-tipped films months before their regular cinema releases. The fact the LFF is in October means it can harvest the plums from Cannes and Venice and show them to fans before the awards season merry-go-round starts up in earnest in early January. I felt very smug when I bagged a ticket for La La Land at the LLF in 2016 and could join in on its pre-Oscar buzz a whole three months before it was released here. 

This year, look out for Jane ‘The Piano’ Campion’s long-awaited return to the big screen with The Power of the Dog, a brooding family drama set in a small frontier town in the American West in the 1920s that stars Benedict Cumberbatch. Or how about acclaimed actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, as she adapts the Elena Ferrante novel The Lost Daughter to star Oscar winner Olivia Colman and superstar-in-the-making Jessie Buckley?

A major benefit of festivals in these post-Covid times is that you don’t necessarily need to turn up in person, as all online offerings have been significantly – not to mention sensibly – bumped up. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to snuggle into my duvet in suburban Epping Forest and enjoy some of the riches of the Glasgow Film Festival, an event that I had never previously managed to attend. An expanded number of LLF films will be available for viewing online; I would heartily recommend Flee, an award-winner at this year’s Sundance. It’s a heartfelt animated work tracing the perilous journey of an illegal immigrant, who fears what it might mean to be gay under Taliban rule, from Afghanistan to Denmark.

What else am I looking forward to this year? The fact that Venus and Serena Williams are executive producers of King Richard, the account of their father’s determination to raise tennis stars on the mean streets of Compton, might mean that it lacks a degree of critical distance, but it remains one hell of a story and Will Smith’s performance in the title role should be memorable. Kenneth Branagh delves deep into his childhood in Troubles-era Northern Ireland to write and direct Belfast, an unusually personal offering, shot in gleaming black and white, from one of the leading names in British arts. But don’t take my word for it, as these are just my picks: the joy of a festival is that there is ample catering for all tastes.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 6-17 Oct (020 7928 3232,