The timing of the Edinburgh International Film Festival was pertinent. This two-week celebration of cinema from around the globe squatted neatly over the Brexit vote, and whilst political discussion was notably absent within the film buff haven of the Filmhouse, it was hard not to note the decidedly international, connected outlook of the festival. A celebration of subtitling as much as film, the EIFF was essentially a chance to see everything that doesn’t normally receive much screen time; the short, the documentary and the foreign.
Not that all of this outward-looking was enjoyable. There were some real bloopers, although the worst offender came from very close to home; The Correspondence was a Jeremy Irons-graced romantic disaster partly shot in Edinburgh, its choice of familiar favourites like Brew Lab and Greyfriars Bobby as the sites of intense melodrama making it all even harder to take seriously. In fact, the English-language faire was generally a bit lukewarm, with the much-hyped Away being a disappointingly clichéd story of strangers connecting in Brighton, although Juno Temple and Timothy Spall offered some decent performances. More engaging was the sweet, if twee, Adult Life Skills, featuring Jodie Whittaker as a twenty-something unable to leave the comforts of her mum’s shed following the death of her twin brother. It bumbled along charmingly, belying a pained emotional core that packed a few punches towards the end.
The real heavyweights came from abroad. Black was a brutal, wrenching drama that followed a familiar Romeo and Juliet formulation but, transplanted into the bitter conflicts of rival gangs in Brussels managed to make the unravelling doom of young lovers ruthlessly horrific. There were also some strong showings from South America, such as the melancholy Argentinean Incident Light, a character study of a young widow trying to carve out some stability for her two young daughters. Then, perhaps surprisingly, one of the stars of the festival was a documentary about economics. The Chicago Boys caused disgruntled ripples in its home country of Chile, through exploring the role played in South America’s political turmoil by young men plucked from Chile to continue their economic education in the States. It set itself up as a typical rags-to-glory story before doing a U-turn, and getting the Chicago Boys themselves, now elderly veteran politicians, to attempt to argue that the financial ends justified a military dictatorship.
On the whole, however, the threads running through the festival were of social rather than political concerns; as well as a notable number of coming-of-age dramas, there was a common focus on the domestic. Waving the baton for the underappreciated genre of Icelandic incest comedy was The Homecoming. This was as squeamish as it sounds, breaking as many taboos as possible whilst drawing cracks of embarrassed laughter from the audience. It lost momentum a bit halfway through as satire gave over to sentimentality, but just about remained a touching and funny reflection on human relationships. However, according to Mother, there’s nothing cosy about family life in Estonia. This was a moodily comic drama that revolved around a mother whose son lay in a coma in his bedroom following an unexplained attack, welcoming a murder-mystery cast of suspects into their home. Shot with minimal time or budget, this slick and mischievous film proved you need neither. More stylistically familiar, although surprisingly touching, was Maggie’s Plan, starring Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig, with all of the quirky off-kilter comedy that that casting suggests. Gerwig’s character was a 30-something single wannabe mother, who finds a sperm donor before falling into an affair with a married professor. Rather than follow the blueprint of a rom-com, it got the romantic to-ing and fro-ing wrapped up in the first half before slowly unspooling into a celebration of independence and motherhood.
Some of the most powerful pieces of film-making at the festival, however, were shorts, a category long resigned to being undeservedly overlooked. Particularly thought-provoking and unexpectedly lyrical was Oh Gallow Lay, which was shown as part of the Radical Transmissions viewing of short films, and cast an ambivalent eye over the occupation and ransack of Colonel Gadaffi’s Californian mansion by a group of free-wheeling youths. Seeming first to celebrate and then to condemn the occupiers, the film explored our relationship with – and rights to – historical narratives.
Then there was Macbeth Unhinged. Pretentiously bat-shit, this set the Scottish play in a limousine (number plate – Lady M) crawling around a fevered New York that, shot at delirious angles in black and white, Woody Allen would be comfortable in. It might have been genius, or it might have been a disaster. Fogged by jarring cuts, moody noir interiors and an apparently stoned cast, it became hard to tell.
Image: Kim Traynor; Geograph.org.uk