So, today is the final day of the London Film Festival — as well as the final day of Sandra Hebron’s long-running tenure as the festival’s artistic director. (She’ll be missed, but having met her feisty replacement, former Sydney fest director Clare Stewart, on a couple of occasions, I’m not at all nervous about the LFF’s future.) The mammoth 16-day affair draws to a close tonight with the UK premiere of Terence Davies’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” which I saw last month and will review soon — after the critical hiding dealt out to already-forgotten opener “360,” this second Rachel Weisz starrer will end proceedings on a much higher note.
I’ll be at the lavish-looking closing party tonight, though the more exclusive ticket — one I didn’t have — was to last night’s festival awards ceremony, where four competitive prizes were presented, as well as BFI Fellowships for David Cronenberg and Ralph Fiennes. The biggest news of the night, however, was the festival’s still-young Best Film award going for the first time to a British production — Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”
As regular readers will know, I couldn’t be more on board with this choice: I was stunned by Ramsay’s daring adaptation of the Lionel Shriver bestseller in Cannes, and thought it easily the best of the nine films shortlisted for the LFF prize. Among the films it beat: “The Artist,” “Shame” and “The Descendants.”
As I’ve said before, however, that shortlist needs to get more adventurous in future editions of the festival: the heavy emphasis on gala premieres means that lame ducks like “360” and “Trishna” get to compete for the award, while smaller festival favorites like “Miss Bala” and “I Wish” don’t — meaning the award still retains a somewhat decorative quality.
Still, that’s not the fault of the jury — which included, among others, John Madden, Gillian Anderson and Asif Kapadia — who deserve credit for picking one of the bravest options on the narrow list, thereby giving one of the year’s best films its first piece of awards hardware. Founded in 2009, the Best Film trophy has previously gone to “A Prophet” and “How I Ended This Summer”; with “Kevin” joining them, this award has yet to put a foot wrong in the final result.
In another well-received choice, the festival’s Grierson Award for Best Documentary went to Werner Herzog’s latest, “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” Thanks to schedule conflicts, I haven’t seen the film myself yet, but given his glowing reaction at Telluride, I’m sure Kris would approve of this win.
I must confess to having a slight issue, however, with the winner of the Sutherland Award for first-time filmmakers: Argentinian director Paolo Giorgelli’s gentle, quietly romantic road movie “Las Acacias” also netted the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and while it’s a perfectly lovely debut, I fear this modest, conventional film is now at risk of seeming somewhat over-rewarded. It certainly doesn’t fit the Sutherland Award’s stated brief of recognising the festival’s “most original and imaginative feature debut”: when you consider that more striking films like “Snowtown” and “Without” were in the running, this carries the air of a compromise choice. (Meanwhile, we never did find out why “Martha Marcy May Marlene” wasn’t even on the shortlist. Oh well.)
Out of kindness to a still-forming actress, I won’t comment too much on the decision to award Best British Newcomer to first-timer Candese Reid for the ropey urban drama “Junkhearts.” I will say, however, that Tom Cullen and Chris New, the breakout stars of “Weekend” (still my film of the fest, for what it’s worth), can count themselves thoroughly short-changed here. Perhaps the jury simply opted out of choosing between them.
Back to “Kevin,” though. Whether or not the LFF prize gets the ball rolling for further awards attention, it’s the cherry on top of a remarkable week for Ramsay’s film. Despite a tough-sell premise and forbidding arthouse credentials, “Kevin” has crossed over spectacularly in the UK market, surpassing all expectations with an opening-weekend gross of nearly $790,000 on a little over 100 screens, its average exceeding that of fellow new opener “Contagion.” (The Guardian has the figures here.)
That may have been helped by a divisive marketing campaign that played up the film’s genre elements (complete with crass “Mummy’s little monster” tagline) and eschewing artful graphics for crammed blocks of critics’ quotes. Many, including Ramsay herself, were unhappy with this less-than-pretty approach, but it seems to have paid off. It’ll be interesting, then, to see how “Kevin” eventually fares in the US, where the Ramsay-approved campaign has been far more elegant and arthouse-oriented. (As it happens, Greg Ellwood featured the film’s gorgeous new US one-sheet here.)
To recap, the full list of LFF winners:
Best Film: “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay
Sutherland Award – Debut Feature: “Las Acacias,” Paolo Giorgelli
Grierson Award – Documentary: “Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life,” Werner Herzog
Best British Newcomer: Candese Reid, “Junkhearts”