Surrounded by journalists and sponsored bottled water, hundreds of us are sitting in the snug leopard-print chairs of the Leicester Square Odeon awaiting the commencement of the 54th London Film Festival. House lights that are usually raised on trodden popcorn and the dregs of super-size soft drinks glow down on uncannily pristine seats – journalist politely converses with PR; miniature croissants are carried in from the lobby, and the pseudoclassical sculptures looming on either wing of the screen seem, for once in the west end of London, optimistic rather than derisory.
This is it: London’s big aspirational film gala, bolstered by extra public funds with the avowed aim of competing with Cannes and Venice and Sundance. That is unlikely, but the prospects for the extra money helping build a strong home-grown identity look excellent. British filmmakers will be opening and closing the festival—in one case with an adaptation of a British novel— and there’s a raft of exciting new British cinema. Neds and The Arbor, in particular, look like standouts. The archives of the BFI will also be yielding some real treats, not least, The Great White Silence, a silent-era tale of explorers lost in a cold climate to a soundtrack of eerie, glassy whines.
The striking thing about yesterday’s press launch was the speech of the BFI’s director, Amanda Nevill, who spoke almost exclusively about one thing: money. It was a reminder that this festival is in many respects a private party. It’s a chance for the British film industry to undertake some critical self-examination, to ascertain what risks it can take on new films, to see audience reactions, to find an appropriate balance between public funding and the hundreds of thousands of pounds this event has been obliged to take on in corporate sponsorship. In a showreel, fragments of the main exhibits are parcelled out to us in 30-second slices, designed not merely to whet the appetite but also to qualify on obscure criteria set in government departments, and elsewhere.
It’s difficult, though, to mind. The aesthetic melange of a festival like Glastonbury is impossible here, for obvious reasons of the format, but also because filmmaking is generally an expensive, prestigious business, and the sphere in which many of its proponents glide remains as glossy, sealed and…