Leeds International Film Festival 2019 reviews of the top movies including The Two Popes and Jojo Rabbit

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Leeds International Film Festival saw a host of movies with big award buzz screened in our city.

During the festival, which took place between November 6 and 21, there were lots and lots of films shown in Leeds.

We’ve previously brought you our review of The Lighthouse which sees Twilight star Robert Pattinson go for Oscar glory alongside Willem Dafoe.

And, below our reviewer Andrew Steel talks us through some of his picks from Leeds International Film Festival 2019. 

The Two Popes

Five stars out of five

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce star in The Two Popes
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce star in The Two Popes

 

How does one go about dramatizing the transition of power within the Vatican when both the outgoing and incoming leaders of the Catholic Church still walk this earth? It’s the question that preoccupies Fernando Meirelles’ first film for eight years – and the veteran director’s answer is to turn it into an unexpected bromance. His approach pays dividends; orchestrated as a two-handed built around a duo of scintillating turn, The Two Popes is a speculative look behind the biggest moment in Rome’s modern history played with droll wit, with a papal buddy dramedy more powerful than preachy.

Disillusioned with the higher office of his calling, as scandals rock the root of Christianity, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) decides to fly to Rome to tender his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).

The two men have never seen eye-to-eye; Bergoglio is a progressive man, frustrated by what he sees as Benedict’s conservative regressions. Yet as the two meet, first at the Pope’s summer residence and then under the roof of the Sistine Chapel itself, their mutual respect comes to the fore – and Benedict’s plans for the future of Catholicism become clear.

Pryce has arguably never been better, while Hopkins proves to be his match; the delights of the pair sparring on matters of faith and belief, coupled with asides about police dog television shows and the Beatles, give them a personal quality sometimes obscured in other depictions.

Meirelles shoots with an almost quasi-documentarian verve, darting into close-ups of the two with expressive intimacy. There’s something to be said for simply letting his two leading men do the talking; coupled with Anthony McCarten’s script, one of the tightest of the year, it’s an absolute tour-de-force treat. As human fireworks go, The Two Popes is a warm masterpiece of impressive pathos of the highest order.

A Hidden Life

Three stars out of five

A Hidden Life follows Franz Jägerstätter who refuses to fight for the Nazis in Second World War
A Hidden Life follows Franz Jägerstätter who refuses to fight for the Nazis in Second World War

 

There is much to appreciate about A Hidden Life, auteur writer-director Terrence Malick’s most traditionalistic contribution to the cinematic process since his alternatively acclaimed and polarized epic The Tree of Life almost a decade ago. Like that film, his latest purports to esoteric ideas and visions, shaded in a unique sense of visual wonder that constantly roves around the world curated and created by the 75-year-old veteran.

Unlike that one, this is a World War II-era folk biopic, of a conscientious objector who defied the Nazi war machine. Yet at almost three hours, its cloud-shrouded beauty starts to wear thin when it strays into repeating the same conversations over and over, restricting it to mere solidity when it could have been sublime.

Franz (August Diehl) and Fani (Valerie Pachner) are a loving couple, peasant farmers with three children, in a close-knit village nestled in the heart the Austrian Alps.

Their peaceful, beatific existence however is about to take a sharp turn when Nazi Germany walks over the border with an eye to the rest of Europe and Franz is called up for basic training.

A softly-spoken religious man, he undergoes the routine without complaint, but it is clear that he holds no regard for Hitler’s regime other than as a despicable betrayal of his morals. He and his wife pray that he won’t be called up for active service – but when the letter inevitably arrives, his refusal to cede ground will leave devastating personal consequences in his wake.

Diehl, best known to Western audiences for his scene-stealing turn as a suspicious officer in Inglorious Basterds a decade ago, is a wonderfully patient performer here, conveying the torment and devout strength of Franz, as is Pachner in support, while the late Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz make their final screen appearances with small, vital turns.

Malick too pulls from his usual bag of tricks; he rarely holds a static shot, swooping in and out of scenes with a snapshot, sharply-edited approach. Yet, as Franz’s steadfast refusal to bow continues to escalate events, there is little sense of new ground being broken. Instead, the same musings, the same arguments, the same exclusions placed upon him and Fani are repeated, almost ad nauseum.

If Malick had cut down the fat for a two-hour film, he may have made a moving masterpiece – instead, his musing is merely a spiritual soliloquy.

Portrait of A Lady on Fire

Five stars out of five

Portrait of Lady on Fire screened at Leeds International Film Festival
Portrait of Lady on Fire screened at Leeds International Film Festival

 

There’s little to deny that a significant number of the litany of romantic passions to typically cross the silver screen from the Hollywood machine pertain to the male gaze; depictions geared typically from the perspective of men, very often in heteronormative fashion. French drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, then, upends this and something more; armed from a proudly feminine point of view, it’s a gorgeously measured affair that may just be the finest love story of the year.

In late 18th-century Brittany, young artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives from the mainland, commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the daughter of a countess whose portrait is to be sent to her Milanese suitor ahead of her wedding.

Héloïse however, recently returned from a convent to take the place of her suddenly deceased sister in the marriage, has refused to sit for a picture, in her attempts to stymie her pre-arranged nuptials. Marianne, then, must pose as a companion for walks along the jaggedly beautiful coastline and among the heather.

Over a fortnight, the two – entwined with stolen glances and mutual curiosity – slowly begin to bond, and then begin to fall for each other, even as the clock ticks down on their forbidden entanglement.

Directed by Céline Sciamma, Portrait initially takes its time in letting its heart-on-sleeve passions unfurl, instead rapturously revelling the technicolour-lensed world created by cinematographer Claire Mathon.

But before too long, it erupts into dazzlingly seductive full bloom with a genuine, sensuous thrill underneath its elegant, tasteful poise. It speaks just as loudly with quiet actions as it does with words, sold with period-piece economy and intellect; it’s a film that fully understands that it can say it best when it says nothing at all.

Merlant and Haenel meanwhile are expressively sublime; where it all comes together perhaps best is in their joint craft of creating a female friendship that feels authentic in a wonderfully unforced manner.

JoJo Rabbit

Four stars out of five

Jojo Rabbit was one of the highlights of Leeds International Festival
Jojo Rabbit was one of the highlights of Leeds International Festival

 

Skewering the Second World War through the prism of comedy isn’t a feat for the faint-hearted. It’s a delicate balancing act, striking the right note so as not to trivialise the true horrors of the biggest conflict in modern history while still mining sufficiently sharp laughs out of it. In the footsteps of The Producers and Inglorious Basterds – and most keenly, The Great Dictator – now comes Taika Waititi’s self-proclaimed “anti-hate” satire Jojo Rabbit, trying to walk the tonal tightrope; that it does so to primarily entertaining, occasionally moving results, is a testament to the Kiwi auteur’s goofy irreverence and heartfelt compassion.

Ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to attend his Hitler Youth camp and prove his loyalty to the Fuhrer, like every good Aryan boy. He is supported in these pursuits by Hitler himself (Waititi pulling double duty in front of and behind the camera), albeit as an imaginary friend, dialled up to levels of crackpot bitchiness.

After failing to wring the neck of a rabbit and inadvertently blowing himself up with a grenade however, he finds himself ostracised and mostly homebound – whereupon he discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding teenage Jewish refugee Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in his late sister’s bedroom walls.

Drawn into a pact of secrecy despite their mistrust, the two slowly open up as Elsa begins to challenge Jojo’s preconceptions – and in the process, drives his best pal Adolf into a frothy rage.

Loosely adapted from Christine Leunens’ much bleaker novel Caging Skies with a sprightly eye, the opening hour hews to the ‘Allo ‘Allo! mould of WWII japery with an inspired ridiculousness and occasional tar-edged twist; bumbling caricatures played with cartoonish relish from a dependable ensemble including Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson.

Grounded from Jojo’s perspective, hopped up on jingoistic fervour, it makes sense up to a point – and when it makes that inevitable pivot towards tragedy, Waititi has grounded just enough sad uneasiness beforehand to shake his house of cards without bringing it tumbling down. He shows a humanity that’s hard to resist; some may find his approach insensitive in a modern-day world where fanaticism is back on high, but right now, his faith might just be what it needs.

You can find out more about the highlights from the festival by visiting the Leeds International Film Festival website.

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