London Film Festival 2010 – Chapter 8

As the LFF enters its final few days, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the best has been saved till last.

Following the disappointments of the previous day, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was just the tonic I needed.

Black Swan

Since his fantastic calling card Pi in 1998, Aronofksy has become one of Hollywood’s most versatile and audacious directors. His adaptation of Hubert Selby’s Requiem For A Dream (2000) remains a one-timer for me, not because of any faults on its part – far from it – but more for the fact it presents the starkest view of drug addiction I’ve ever seen on screen.

I appear to be one of the few people on the planet who loves The Fountain (2006), a work of extraordinary visual beauty that conjures a hugely original love story. The Wrestler (2008) was more universally praised – quite right too – and contains one of the most honest screen portrayals I’ve ever seen courtesy of Mickey Rourke.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Aronofsky has an uncanny ability to draw out something extra special from his actors and he’s done it again in Black Swan, with Natalie Portman giving a career-best turn.

Portman plays Nina, a technically gifted dancer with the New York City ballet who strives so hard for perfection she never seems to let herself go. All she wants is to play the lead in Swan Lake and she’s given the chance to realise her dream when she is chosen by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to replace the embittered Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) as prima ballerina.

Leroy’s is a daring new production of Swan Lake, where Nina must not only play the gracefully innocent White Swan, but also the darker, more uninhibited and lustful Black Swan.

Nina has no problem with becoming the White Swan, but her repressive, inhibited personality doesn’t lend itself to her portraying a convincing Black Swan.

As the pressure builds, Nina’s mind starts to fracture and soon she is clinging on to what she perceives as reality. Her fragile mental state isn’t helped by her wildly over-protective mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a retired ballerina, while sexier, darker new dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to possess all the qualities of the Black Swan and, as such, is perceived by Nina as a very real threat.

That only scrapes the surface of Black Swan, Aronofsky’s most complex and visually sumptuous film to date and one of the very best pictures you’ll see all year.

Nina’s gradual breakdown is powerfully realised on screen, both through the visual tricks Aronofsky uses and Portman’s tour de force performance, without a doubt the best she has ever committed to screen.

As psychologically daring as anything you’ll see, the ballet performances are as almost as breathtaking as those in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), and that is about as big a compliment as I can pay.

Earlier in the week we were treated to Mike Leigh’s new film Another Year. To complete the diptych of much-loved British veterans, we now have Route Irish, the latest from Leigh’s stablemate Ken Loach.

Route Irish

Route Irish is the name given to the road between Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone, the closest thing to a safe place for the Allied troops stationed in Iraq’s capital.

It’s the most dangerous stretch of road in the world and is where private contractor Frankie (John Bishop) loses his life. At first it seems Frankie was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but lifelong mate and fellow ex-soldier and contractor Fergus (Mark Womack) isn’t convinced and, with the help of Frankie’s widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe), launches a quest to uncover the truth.

Loach has made a career out of picking the kinds of scabs that governments would rather he left well alone and in Route Irish he turns his spotlight on the privatisation of war.

The private security firm of Route Irish reeks of corruption and greed. Set in 2007, the film implies companies like these have been allowed to operate with complete impunity and, as it turns out, get away with murder.

The anger that Loach feels seeps out of every frame and in the tormented character of Fergus he has the perfect cipher for that rage. In Womack’s capable hands, Fergus is a mad dog blinded by grief, guilt and fury who simply won’t be stopped until Frankie’s death is avenged.

In the past Loach has been a bit guilty of romanticising his lead characters and treating his films as extended lectures. In recent films though one can sense he has been trying to make his work more accessible and that’s certainly the case here. That’s not to say it has any less to say than any of his other pictures, but Loach seems to trust his extremely accomplished storytelling more to give us a hugely powerful thriller.

If you watch Route Irish and leave feeling angry, your blood will be boiling after sitting through the compelling documentary Draquila – Italy Trembles.

Draquila – Italy Trembles

You know as a filmmaker that you’re doing something right when your documentary incurs the wrath of the system it is directly criticising.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Italy’s culture minister boycotted Sabina Guzzanti’s film, branding it as nothing more than propaganda against Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

This statement is pretty ironic as after watching Draquila – Italy Trembles you’d be forgiven for thinking that this documentary is about the only visual document of the terrible earthquake that devastated L’Aquila in 2009 that isn’t propagandistic.

Focussing on the aftermath of the earthquake, Guzzanti presents an exhaustive case for mass incompetence and corruption at the heart of Italy’s rotten political system, with Berlusconi at the head of the table.

For much of the film, you’re left shaking your head at the sheer bare-faced greed on show, be it for money, land, political capital or power.

Guzzanti can’t help poking fun at Berlusconi from time to time (like shooting fish in a barrel, admittedly), but the overriding tone of this enlightening and important documentary is of anger at the way a system which subjugates its citizens and treats the victims of the earthquake as nothing more than cattle is allowed to stand.

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