A documentary about a legendary photographer/activist, Harry Styles in another leading role, & other films featured at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival.
With its traditional October placement, the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) tends to play host to several films that have already played at many other big international film festivals and are often active participants in the annual end-of-year awards derby. This year’s CIFF lineup was no exception, with several high-profile titles still hoping to garner enough attention and acclaim for this year’s Oscar race and even a couple that are worthy of going the distance in that regard.
At first glance, the notion of documentarian Laura Poitras making a film on the life and work of famed photographer Nan Goldin may seem like an odd change of pace for her after such overtly political films as The Oath, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, and Risk. As it turns out, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which took the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is no paycheck gig but rather a work as rigorous, angry, and political as anything she’s done before. Roughly half the film details Goldin’s life, from her emotionally jarring suburban upbringing to her eventual embracing of herself as both a bisexual and an artist to how she found herself rising in the New York art world in the 1980s through such photographic series as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, even as the AIDS crisis was decimating her community.
However, it’s the other half of the film where the political aspect truly comes into play. After being prescribed Oxycontin, Goldin, like so many others, quickly became addicted to the opioid and nearly died of an overdose before kicking the habit for good. In the wake of those events, she became determined to bring down the Sackler family, the Purdue Pharma owners who made billions off of developing and promoting Oxycontin as a safe drug while knowing full well just how lethally addictive it could be. Over the years, the Sacklers have attempted to buy a sheen of respectability by endowing wings bearing their name at art museums worldwide. To combat this, Goldin, whose works appear in many of those same institutions, joined with the activist group P.A.I.N. to stage many high-profile protests within their walls to get the Sackler name removed.
At first, the juxtaposition of the two story threads seems a little forced and uncomfortable—you wish Poitras would pick one of the two and avoid the ping-ponging feeling. As the film progresses, however, the merging of the two seemingly disparate elements becomes more convincing as it gradually shows how the at-times unsure young woman depicted early on could morph into the very same person who would publicly take on such a powerful family, even at the potential risk of her artistic career. Poitras does an excellent job of juggling moments of poignancy with elements of suspense (such as in a segment where P.A.I.N. members appear to be stalked by a mysterious figure possibly in the employ of Purdue) and also makes an excellent case for Goldin’s skills as an artist for those who may not be familiar with her work. It all comes together in a powerful finale that brings the past and present together in a stunningly emotional manner that makes the film both one of the year’s very best documentaries featured at CIFF and perhaps Poitras’s best work to date as well.
A more traditional example of Oscar bait at CIFF comes in the form of Causeway, the feature directorial debut of Lila Neugebauer. In this one, Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, a U.S. Army Engineer who is sent home from Afghanistan to New Orleans after being caught in an explosion that results in a brain injury. After getting through the main part of her rehab, she is eager to redeploy—no doubt fueled by once again sharing the same roof with her inattentive and self-absorbed mother (Linda Emond)—but until she can convince her doctor to sign off on the requisite paperwork, she ends up taking a job as a pool cleaner. This leads her to come into contact with James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic with a prosthetic leg and his own story of loss, trauma, and guilt that he tries to cope with via weed. The two form a bond—though not the expected romantic one—and through this unexpected friendship, each one looks to find the strength to confront the traumas of their pasts to move on to the future finally.
The good news is that Lawrence and Henry are pretty spectacular in their scenes together—the connection they forge together is convincing and heartfelt throughout, allowing them to navigate a number of undeniably tricky emotional moments expertly. The trouble is that the screenplay by Elizabeth Sanders, Luke Goebel, and Ottessa Moshfegh is not nearly as impressive. It never quite delves as deeply into the characters as Lawrence and Henry clearly have, and it just seems as if it is on auto-pilot for much of its running time, especially with the somewhat clanging use of swimming pools as metaphors for the human condition and the creaky conflict between Lynsey and her self-involved mother. Clocking in at around 90 minutes, Causeway feels at times like a larger and more complex story that has been trimmed down into something smoother and more palatable. Happily, the efforts of Lawrence and Henry still shine through despite this, and if there is any reason to watch this film, it is to see what miracles they can perform even with material that is not quite up to par.
Another film at CIFF in which a strong performance is forced to coexist with a highly uneven screenplay is The Lost King, the latest work from Stephen Frears. Based on a true story, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Philippa Langely, an ordinary office worker who is considered an oddball by her friends, family, and co-workers. One night, she attends a production of Richard III. She is seized with the notion that he has been saddled with a reputation as a murderous usurper over the centuries based entirely on how Shakespeare depicted him in his play. Feeling a particular kinship with the one-time ruler, she begins devoting all her time to researching his history (even going so far as to having visions of him) in the hopes of restoring his good name at last to the point where she becomes convinced that she has figured out the long-hidden resting place of his remains. Along the way, she finds herself battling against the entrenched views of the academic establishment, which initially pooh-pooh her notions. When it appears that her conclusions are correct, attempts to take credit for her discoveries and cut her out of the picture entirely.
Ironically, the film itself seems to have been excavated from a distant point in time—specifically that period in the late 1990s when Miramax would successfully ride blandly genteel movies like this to a few Oscar nominations every year. The problem is that the screenplay, co-written by Steve Coogan (who co-stars as Philippa’s genial ex-husband) and Jeff Pope is almost fatally bland. There is probably a compelling story to be told from this material. Still, the script is so determined to wrench it into a black-and-white plucky-woman-vs-the-establishment narrative that all nuance is lost along the way. The only times it tries to do something different are in the moments when Philippa communes with the spirit of Richard III. Still, these don’t work either because of the bizarre decision to portray him as a silent, beatific presence rather than an actual person. Hawkins does what she can with the material, and to whatever extent the film works is due entirely to her efforts. For the most part, however, The Lost King probably would have been better served as a straightforward documentary than the bland trifle presented here.
At least the lead performances in Causeway and The Lost King save those films from complete disposability, which is more than can be said for My Policeman, Michael Grandage’s largely disastrous adaptation of the 2012 Bethan Roberts novel that was itself inspired by the long-standing relationship between celebrated novelist E.M. Forster, policeman Bob Buckingham and the latter’s wife, May. As the film opens in the late 1990s, Marion (Gina McKee) has invited stroke victim Patrick (Rupert Everett) to stay at the seaside home that she shares with her husband, Tom (Linus Roache), much to Tom’s apparent consternation. The three have known each other for a long time, and in between views of the current uneasiness, there are extended flashbacks to their early days in 50’s era Brighton. Then, Tom (Harry Styles) is a policeman who woos and weds schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin) while maintaining a friendship with museum worker Patrick (David Dawson) that Marion tries to overlook for as long as she can, until the building tensions in her marriage become too much for her to bear.
Ironically, this story should be inspired in part by the life of E.M. Forster since the chief reason it doesn’t work is that the characters utterly fail to connect with either each other or with those of us in the audience. There’s never a moment in which we can believe in any aspect of the trio’s tangled relationship—even the connections between the young and old versions of the characters are dubious at best (Corrin and McKee do the best in this regard)—and since we don’t believe in them, it is impossible to muster much interest in what happens to them, either back in the day or during their equally implausible reunion. If the story had just stuck to the 50s narrative and set the framework aside, it might have helped the storytelling a little. However, that would have meant more exposure to the film’s other weak link, the cloddish and unconvincing performance by Harry Styles in a role that requires a certain depth as an actor that he does not possess yet. The result is an absolute mess, one that is all the more frustrating because it takes a potentially strong story and reduces it to the level of treacly soap opera.
A far more impressive piece of filmmaking featured at CIFF is One Fine Morning, Mia Hansen-Love’s follow-up to last year’s wonderful Bergman’s Island. In this one, Lea Seydoux stars as Sandra, a young widow who is already stretched thin by her responsibilities working as an interpreter, raising her young daughter Linn (Camille Leban Martins), and serving as the primary caregiver for her beloved ailing father (Pascal Greggory). This philosophy professor is slowly succumbing to a neurodegenerative disease that will imminently force him to be removed from his long-time home. This is an enormous load for anyone to juggle at once. If that wasn’t enough of a load on Sandra’s plate, she happens to run into Clement (Melvil Poupaud), an old friend of her late husband. She soon finds herself beginning a relationship complicated further by the fact that he is currently married.
With all these elements, One Fine Morning constantly risks turning into mawkish melodrama. Still, it manages to avoid soap opera histrionics for the most part. It is partly due to Hansen-Love’s quietly understated approach to the material that rings true throughout. There is a scene early on, for example, in which Sandra calmly coaches her father through the once-simple process of opening a door that will almost certainly strike a nerve with any viewer who has had to watch a loved one struggle with the most basic of tasks and realize that there is only so much that they can do to help them. Even the most potentially problematic aspect of the story—the relationship with the married Clement—is handled with delicacy and nuance.
Much of it is also due to the quietly spectacular performance from Seydoux, who may be one of the most glamorous movie stars in the world at this moment, but utterly convincing as an ordinary woman who has clearly been put through a lot over the last few years but who can still demonstrate a sense of vulnerability and hope beneath her outwardly placid demeanor. Smart, straightforward, and quietly powerful throughout (and with moments of genuine erotic heat between Seydoux and Poupaud thrown in for good measure), One Fine Morning is the kind of drama that will resonate deeply with viewers long after CIFF has ended.