LONDON – I mentioned last week that Jacques Audiard’s “Rust & Bone,” five months after a more divided Cannes reception, seemed to be playing well at the BFI London Film Festival. With civilians and critics alike, it was perhaps the title I heard most often in conversations about what festival titles had stood out, or indeed which ones they planned to see — egged on, perhaps, by the ubiquitous billboards for the film plastered around the British capital. Meanwhile, it earned extra, inadvertent media exposure as the site of the festival’s most tabloid-friendly incident: at its gala premiere, two patrons were ejected from the cinema for getting more than a little frisky during the film. Adjust the inevitable “thrust” and “boner” puns to taste.
More officially, however, its status as the film of the festival was sealed at last night’s festival awards ceremony, where a jury led by David Hare handed it the Star of London for Best Film over 11 other shortlisted titles. London has become a happy hunting ground for Audiard: in 2009, his film “A Prophet” took the inaugural Star, a prize that has since been handed to “How I Ended This Summer,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and now “Rust & Bone.” Four years in, and they have yet to make a dud choice.
In his preamble to presenting the award, Hare praised the also-rans, particularly noting the high standard of acting across the competition. (The festival doesn’t offer any acting prizes.) Special Mentions were handed to two Latin American films, coincidentally both in the running for the foreign-language Oscar: Pablo Larrain’s “No,” from Chile, and Michel Franco’s “After Lucia,” from Mexico. “No” I’ve already praised extensively on these pages; “After Lucia” I just saw yesterday and need some time to process, but it’s a formidable achievement.
Both would have made distinguished choices for the top honor. Ditto two shortlisted titles that were my favorite personal discoveries of the festival: Cate Shortland’s “Lore,” which I’ve already reviewed, and Francois Ozon’s tremendous storytelling study “In the House,” which may well be the best film’s of the director’s rich and varied career. I’m thrilled, however, to see “Rust & Bone” pick up its first bit of awards hardware after leaving Cannes empty-handed, and losing the French Oscar bid to “The Intouchables.” Lead actor Matthias Schoenaerts accepted the award on Audiard’s behalf, and looked decidedly pleased to do so.
The festival’s longest-running honor, the Sutherland Award for Best Debut Feature, went to a popular if hardly surprising choice: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which only just hit UK theaters after having its LFF premiere last week. It’s the US critical darling’s latest addition to a groaning trophy cabinet that already includes the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes — and I expect a boatload of newcomer honors will join them by the time the awards season is through. To his credit, 29 year-old director Benh Zeitlin accepted last night’s prize with such puppyish enthusiasm, you’d have thought it was his first: he expressed particular awe at being in the presence of Tim Burton, there to receive a BFI Fellowship.
Sutherland jury president Hannah McGill described the decision as a wholly unanimous one, though Special Mentions were given to Indian film “Ship of Theseus” and the remarkable “Wadjda,” the first Saudi Arabian feature ever directed by a woman. I’d personally have preferred a fresher choice for the award — bold Brazilian suburbia thriller “Neighbouring Sounds” and crisp Scottish character study “Shell” would have been bracing picks — but there’s no denying the universal appeal of “Beasts,” a little engine that I still expect will chug its way to a Best Picture nomination at the end of the day.
I also have high Oscar hopes for the LFF’s Grierson Award winner for Best Documentary: Alex Gibney’s superb “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which I reviewed earlier this week. The selection was greeted with universal approval in the room: the competition, which included fellow US docs “Central Park Five” and “West of Memphis,” wasn’t exactly paltry, but documentary jury head Roger Graef implied the selection had been as clear one, describing Gibney’s searing investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as “life-changing.” The film opens in the US on 16 November, and will have its TV premiere on HBO in early 2013; if it’s not on the Academy’s documentary shortlist next month, something will have gone very wrong. (Look out for my forthcoming interview with Gibney.)
Rounding out the competitive awards, jurors Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman handed the Best British Newcomer honor to writer-director Sally El Hosaini for “My Brother the Devil,” a striking, Sundance-lauded debut feature that flips the London gangster-drama formula with fascinating details of ethnicity and sexuality. Fady Elsayed, the first-time actor who plays one of the film’s two leads, was nominated for the same award; an overwhelmed El Hosaini claimed the prize for him and all her collaborators.
Bookending the festival awards were the starriest presentations of the night, the BFI Fellowships for everyone’s favorite kooky film couple, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter. Burton, whose “Frankenweenie” opened the festival last week, was up first, but won out with the night’s coolest presenter by far: Christopher Lee, who delivered an extravagant ode to the director’s unruly imagination in tones of honeyed gravel. A subdued Burton made comparatively short work of his acceptance speech, claiming to feel particularly humbled as an American director receiving the British Film Institute’s highest honor. (“A lot of people always thought I was British… or Mexican,” he quipped.)
Naturally, LFF organizers saved Bonham Carter’s presentation for last, and she didn’t disappoint. After a gushing tribute from legendary theater director Trevor Nunn, who gave the actress her first break on stage in the 1980s and later directed her in his film adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” followed by a lengthy montage that documented her transition from English rose to Gothic goddess to something in between, she took the stage with typical gusto. All awards ceremonies really should find something to give Bonham Carter: her spacy, off-the-cuff acceptance speeches never fail to delight. “Thank you, you’ve just made my mum very happy,” she began drolly, before thanking the BFI “for making my fellow a Fellow” and closing it out with what she claimed is her dad’s mantra: “KBO: Keep Buggering On.” Long may she continue to do so.
The evening itself was a high-class affair: the awards were presented over a black-tie dinner in London’s historical Banqueting Hall on Whitehall, with cocktail receptions on either end. In addition to the aforementioned luminaries, I had the pleasure of briefly chatting to David O. Russell, whose “Silver Linings Playbook” had just had its UK premiere hours before, in the festival’s Surprise Film slot. It’s the first time I’ve missed the surprise screening since coming to London, but last night’s festivities were an elegant alternative.
The festival closes this evening with the UK premiere of Mike Newell’s adequate but uninspired new adaptation “Great Expectations”; I, meanwhile, am off to check out “Le Tableau,” a potential dark horse in the animation Oscar race. Once again, the BFI London Film Festival’s 2012 award winners are:
Best Film: “Rust & Bone,” Jacques Audiard
(Special Mentions: “No” and “After Lucia”)
Sutherland Award (Best Debut Feature): “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” Benh Zeitlin
(Special Mentions: “Wadjda” and “Ship of Theseus”)
Grierson Award (Best Documentary): “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” Alex Gibney
Best British Newcomer: Sally El Hosaini, “My Brother the Devil”