Postcard: London

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 2014, 11:32pm

Rather matching the nature of its city, the London Film Festival (LFF) always feels vast and unwieldy, an ever-evolving beast that never seems to stop. This year, preceding each film, was a stark reminder: a title sequence boasting of its girth - 248 films playing across 17 cinemas in 12 days.

That's a monster movie marathon in anyone's book.

Artistic director Clare Stewart has done a fine job in opening up the LFF to the London public, with cinemas in Hackney, Brixton and Islington all very much a part of the festival now. The LFF has always been one for the people: an end-of-year round-up of the year's best movies seasoned with a smattering of A-list stars.

This year was no different, with the fest's 58th edition opening with The Imitation Game and closing with David Ayer's Fury - two very different second world war movies, one about Enigma code-cracker Alan Turing, the other centring on a Sherman tank crew. When your red carpet is graced by Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, those films' respective male leads, there's always going to be excitement.

Other luminaries included Steve Carell (for Foxcatcher), Reese Witherspoon ( Wild) and Jennifer Lawrence ( Serena). Of those films with famous faces attached to them, it was Wild that proved the most interesting. Scripted by Nick Hornby, it's based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, a former heroin addict who, after a violent break-up, decides to reboot her life - by hiking the 1,700km Pacific Crest Trail that runs along the west coast of the US.

Flashing back to Strayed's past, there's a hypnotic quality to the biographical drama. The director is Jean-Marc Vallée, who was overlooked last year despite his Dallas Buyers Club ushering both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscars. And you can envisage the same fortune for Witherspoon. It's been a while since she's acted in anything this compelling and it shows - she grasps the role with both fists.

Another female-driven story, albeit of a different nature, is Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy. Following up on his critically acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio (2012), the British director once again delivers a beautifully crafted, hermetically sealed universe, this time about a sado-masochistic relationship between women.

The film stars Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia, a lepidopterist. When she's not studying butterflies and the like, she's playing dominant to the submissive Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna) - though she's growing weary of the role as the cracks begin to show in their relationship.

Both Wild and The Duke of Burgundy had played in Toronto - but London did snag the world premiere of Teddy Chen Tak-sum's breathtaking Hong Kong martial arts spectacular Kung Fu Jungle. Accompanying the film was its director, lead actor Donnie Yen Ji-dan and co-star Michelle Bai Bing. Packed with cameos and nods to martial arts maestros, it's the sort of film students of the genre will love.

Hong Kong also plays a big part in Citizenfour, an electric late addition in the fest's documentary strand. An intimate portrait of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, documented by Laura Poitras, the bulk of the film was shot in the city over the eight extraordinary days in June 2013 when Snowden's revelations first went public. Joining him in a hotel room, along with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, Poitras captures a man who, unlike WikiLeaks counterpart Julian Assange, seemingly has no interest in being the centre of attention.

The LFF also had a surprising array of impressive horror movies - chief among them Spring and It Follows. Written by Justin Benson, who co-directs with Aaron Moorhead, the former is set in modern-day Italy, where an American drifter (Lou Taylor Pucci) meets the girl of his dreams (Nadia Hilker) - until he discovers she has a deadly secret. Most impressive are the visual effects, largely done on a low budget by Moorehead himself.

It Follows, meanwhile, is a brilliantly executed, ingenious timeless tale of teens - and a shape-shifting creature that pursues them. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, and starring Maika Monroe, the screening I attended was introduced by an LFF programmer who described it as "bat-s*** scary". It isn't. But like many things at the festival, it was utterly gripping.