FilmSpace at London International Film Festival: The Favourite; Cam; Border; Assassination Nation

Film Critic Calum Cooper is in London for the 62nd London Film Festival with his latest set of reviews. Today he shares his thoughts on Yorgos Lanthimos’s much anticipated The Favourite, as well as a Netflix Blumhouse movie, the latest Swedish adaptation from the author of Let the Right One In, and a cascade of madness in Assassination Nation.

The Favourite – ★★★★☆

Yargos Lanthimos has always pushed the boundaries with his films. He combines strange premises with eccentric dialogue and subtle underlying subtext to create films that often go against the grain of their genres. The Favourite also does this, fitting neatly into Lanthimos’s style, but remaining its own unique experience.

Separating the film from its identity as a period piece drama is how seemingly contemptuous it is towards its own genre. Or at least to certain clichés within its genre. Where one might expect polite idioms or respectful etiquette from a film set in the early 1700s, The Favourite is all about bad manners and how it aids terrible people, taking the idea to the utmost extreme in hilariously memorable fashion.

Rachel Weisz is Sarah Churchill, a noble lady and close confident of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman). She’s a fierce woman used to getting what she wants, to the admiration of the Queen, whose physical illnesses are challenged only by her thoroughly spoilt attitude. However, the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) threatens to undo this. She’s a servant who’s started rising through the ranks by abiding to the court’s rules of politeness while hiding her own inner ruthlessness. Catching the eye of the Queen, the film becomes about the scheming rivalry between Sarah and Abigail as they compete to be the Queen’s Favourite.

In between its stylish costumes and jovial soundtrack is a film with plenty to say on power, and how it’s most suited to the merciless and the conniving rather than the good natured.

The film capitalises immensely off of its three leading ladies, all of whom are perfectly cast. The story takes many devious twists and turns, and none of them would hold the same comedic or emotional weight without these actors to see them through. Olivia Coleman has one of the most diverse ranges of any actor working today and she taps into the character’s deepest miseries, and how that would affects someone in a position of predominant power. Equal parts heart-breaking and hilarious, she’s matched only by Weisz and Stone, whose characters display their cruelty and ambitions differently but hold the same lust for power. Much of the film sees these women try to one up each other in contention for the Favourite position, with each attempt becoming increasing more dire the more farcical it gets.

Mix in a sharp as nails script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara and Robbie Ryan’s dazzling cinematography that gorgeously captures both the elegance and absurdity of the time period and we have a film that entices the viewer visually and with its monstrous wit. As Tories and Whigs fight for control of the Queen’s court, just as Sarah and Abigail brawl for favouritism, the overwhelming avarice on display, particularly amongst our main trio, creates such bitter results that laughing becomes as much a coping mechanism as it is a pleasurable side effect of the dialogue.

In between its stylish costumes and jovial soundtrack is a film with plenty to say on power, and how it’s most suited to the merciless and the conniving rather than the good natured. It’s quite the pessimistic lesson, but Lanthimos’s unique touch, and the unparalleled dynamic of our leading ladies make the film a strange delight in spite of that. A darkly humorous experience that serves as Lanthimos’s most accessible film yet.

Cam – ★★★☆☆

Cam is the latest from Blumhouse pictures, who have set a relatively unimpressive precedent in the horror department. While there are some notable, even exceptional, titles (Get Out, Oculus, The Gift), some redundant narratives based around lame gimmicks plague their filmography. Cam initially seems like another one of those films. But, it actually does maintain a decent sense of atmosphere. It’s not a great film, but it at least has some level of suspense to its execution.

Madeline Brewer is Alice, a young woman who makes money as a cam girl under the pseudonym Lola. She’s secretive about her true occupation to her mother, waiting to reveal this information once she’s much higher up on her website’s favourites ranking and thus making a lot more money. Her antics – such as fake suicides – earn the ire of fellow cam models, but she ignores them in order to reach the top. One day, she logs on to her account and finds that she has been replaced by an exact replica of herself, a mysterious figure who may or may not be supernatural who is taking her money and her identity.

It’s quite the odd premise to say the least. However it strongly benefits from its writer, Isa Mazzei. She used to work as a cam girl herself, making Cam one of the few sex work films to have been written by someone who knows the industry.

Because of this, the film is able to treat its subject matter with much more intelligence and dignity than if the script was made by an outsider. While it shows just how much Alice is making from this industry, I never felt like it was glorifying the business either. As prosperous as the occupation can be financially, she has to please the perversions of the men who watch her show. And the men she deals with are portrayed as either creeps, cheats, or grossly immature or insecure. It’s not a pleasant business, and the film, while making it clear that it’s Alice’s choice to be a part of this world, makes no attempt to show otherwise.

Its refuse to succumb to jump scares when establishing its horror is also commendable. Instead it relies on the main character’s confusion and anxieties surrounding her situation in order to build suspense. It makes the film some dimension of creepy, and Brewer’s performance truly carries the picture. Her character isn’t always the most likeable, due to some of her tasteless stunts, but we empathise with her fear and stress. Brewer is able to convey those emotions wonderfully, while also finding the character’s more carefree side underneath all the baggage.

Unfortunately, while its atmosphere is relatively strong, its narrative does feel somewhat wishy-washy. Unless I missed a line of dialogue, I don’t think the film ever really explains what’s going on. I still couldn’t tell you whether the entity in question was a virus or something supernatural. And the rest of the story does play out in a fairly typical fashion that’s easy to predict.

But, I would still give this film the benefit of the doubt purely for its attempts to be atmospheric over gimmicky. I probably wouldn’t watch it again, but, as it’s slated for Netflix in the future, it may be worth one viewing.

Border – ★★★☆☆

Border (Gräns in Swedish) is adapted from a short story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist, the man behind the mesmerising Let the Right One In. An unrecognisable Eva Melander plays Tina, a Swedish border security guard who’s shunned for her “ugly” facial features, but has an uncanny ability to smell people’s fears and anxieties. As you can imagine, this makes her very good at her job, demonstrated when she catches a man trying to sneak into the country with a memory of child pornography. While aiding in the investigation behind this, she meets a man called Vore (Eero Milonoff), who bares similar facial features to her. Drawn to Vore, Tina starts to learn that her abilities may be due to fantastical elements of herself that she never knew about.

And I do not dare press further in the synopsis for, despite the film’s assigned genre, the fantasy elements only start to emerge at around the halfway mark. This came as quite the surprise to me, for I had never heard of its source material, and did not know what genre it was upon watching the film for myself. I would recommend knowing as little as possible should you choose to seek this one out for yourself. It heightens the surprises drastically.

But even if you don’t care about spoilers, this was a strong film that benefits greatly from its unusual blending of genres, and particularly from its interesting lead character. The first half plays out like a drama, with Tina feeling out of place with society, both from her looks and her withdrawn personality and lifestyle. It would have been intriguing enough as a drama on its own, but when the fantasy elements of the film arrive, it further cements Tina’s sense of isolation. She desires acceptance and belonging, but many factors keep her from reaching that. You could even say that her status and appearance is a mental border that she cannot cross. She’s a fascinating character that Eva Melander captures with melancholic triumph.

Keeping the film engaging outside of its character with the twists and turns its story takes, both the shocking and the perplexing. It’s an unpredictable pathway from its opening frame to its closing credits, taking us on a journey through harrowing moments contrasted with gorgeous cinematography and immaculate direction. All of which build upon its themes on pure goodness and morality, summarised by a terrific line of dialogue Tina says in one of her last scenes.

What prevents me from giving the film a higher rating is that I don’t think its two genres of drama and fantasy blend as well as it could’ve in the last third. A plot twist that ties both storylines together occurs and it felt a little unnatural to me. I didn’t buy it as much as I would’ve liked to, meaning some momentum built by the film felt lost.

That shouldn’t deter viewers from checking this one out however. From the films of theirs I’ve seen, Scandinavia has one of cinema’s finest track records, and Border is yet another addition to that. It’s a fresh take on fantasy living side by side with reality, with a solid lead character and performance to see us through it.

Assassination Nation – ★★★☆☆

Assassination Nation is a great title, although it has connotations of a very different movie than the one I ended up getting. Not that I’m complaining. It was still an insane experience that I liked – it just ended up being a different kind of insane.

Taking place in Salem, Massachusetts, our main character is Lily (Odessa Young). She’s a regular high school girl that enjoys spending time with her entourage. However, Salem ends up being on the receiving end of a crisis. An unknown hacker starts leaking the residents’ personal info, revealing dark secrets from… virtually everyone. This includes Lily, whose own secrets combined with her unorthodox attitude to taboo subjects makes her and her friends the targets for attacks from the community, attacks that grow in size until it results in widespread death and ruin that you’d find in a Purge movie.

This film pulls no punches, to the point where it opens with a warning on the various triggering topics it contains, including misogyny, transphobia, and fragile male egos. It lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for. And based on some of the topics it lists, you can probably tell instantly whether it’s for you or not.

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It’s just as well that it warns us in advance because if it didn’t then it would feel like two different films spliced together. It opens up with high school drama concerning crushes and sports, but then descends into a whole other world of madness once people’s personal lifestyle choices and secrets get put out there, becoming a carnival of frenetic visuals and action. Once Lily and her friends have targets painted on their backs, the film suddenly starts to go completely out there with its creative filmmaking. Its mixture of neon lighting and stylish cinematography – which utilises recognisable techniques like one shot takes – adds a sense of franticness not just to the film’s action scenes, but to the plot as a whole.

Behind all of the chaos however is a message on the dangers of jumping to conclusions and accusations without concrete proof. Maybe I’m reaching, but even the choice to set this in a town called Salem seems creatively devised to serve this message. These young women become scapegoats for the town residents’ own hypocrisy and moral high grounds. As violent as the film can get, it purposefully does so to show us the absurd extremes we as a society can go to deflect blame and responsibility. If we always look for the worst in people, while distancing ourselves from our own flaws for the sake of feeling secure, then it doesn’t end well for anybody.

An unfortunate downside is that Lily and her gang are blandly written, existing merely to serve the message and not much else. Plus, the film’s more brutal, ultra-violent touch to its themes could be seen as a lame attempt to be edgy by some. However, while I wouldn’t call the film great, I respected its convictions and its wiliness to go all out just enough for me to derive a level of fun from watching it.

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