The British are coming!

Timothy Spall in Mrs Lowry & Son.

That’s what Paul Revere is reputed to have shouted on his famous 1775 midnight ride to warn sleeping Massachusetts colonists of the advancing British army. It didn’t happen.

Well, the ride did, but the shouting bit would have been a bit counter-productive during what was intended as a secret mission.

But down at the Rialto Cinema they’re shouting it from the rooftops as the British are the latest international visitors celebrated by way of a film festival.

There’s been an almost continual round of festivals at the Rialto. There was the recent NZ International Film Festival and before that an Italian festival and a French festival. Damn fine I say; any excuse to get a broader range of cinema on screens. Now, for those with an aversion to subtitles, there’s a festival where pretty much everyone speaks English.

The British Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday and is running until November 13. In all honesty I find it a peculiar selection of films. Nothing leaps out as a “Must See”, nothing has garnered worldwide excitement and has local audiences fizzing at the bung in anticipation.

But there are several films that are at the very least interesting, either directed by top talent or starring actors whose presence generally makes any film worth watching.

Big Bill

Such is the case with Hope Gap, starring the inimitable Bill Nighy. He plays the long-term husband of Annette Bening, announcing to her and their grown-up son that he is leaving for another woman. Not cheerful stuff but the presence of Mr Nighy makes it well worth a look.

Similarly, Timothy Spall is back in artistic territory. Having brought J M W Turner vividly to life in Mr Turner, he returns with a far less grunting performance as L S Lowry (what is it about English artists and initials?), the man famous for painting “matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs”.

But Mrs Lowry & Son is not just a showcase for Timothy Spall, it also stars the legendary Venessa Redgrave – yes, she is still alive! - as Lowry’s oppressive mother. The film itself is less than thrilling but the two leads are reliably magical on screen.

That previous biopic, Mr Turner, was directed by Mike Leigh, most of whose films are essential viewing. His latest is also at the fest’, a historical political epic called Peterloo, focused on the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when British government forces charged a crowd of over 60,000 peaceful demonstrators who were demanding political reform and protesting rising levels of poverty. They killed many and injured  hundreds more.

Also coming is the latest from directorial darling Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, High-Rise) who this time delves into the fraught realms of unhappy family reunions with Happy New Year Colin Burstead. Each of his films have been unique, from pure action and black comedy to hallucinogenic historical horror, so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Very British

Of course no Britfest would be complete without feel-good films about eccentric performing groups. Fisherman’s Friends centres on an unlikely group of shanty-singing fishermen (based on a true story), while Military Wives finds the titular women of the home front, led by Kristin Scott Thomas, forming a choir.

Russia gets a look-in via two documentaries: Citizen K examines Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once among the richest men in Russia, now exiled in London after a ten-year sentence for offending Vladimir Putin (or, officially, tax evasion). It’s directed by Alex Gibney, which is a gold star recommendation. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog questions a former General Secretary of the U.S.S.R in Meeting Gorbachev.

But perhaps the two best picks are mainstream ones, both based on true stories: Official Secrets is a tense whistle-blower thriller from director Gavin Hood starring Keira Knightley, while The Aeronauts reunites the pair from The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. It’s the story of daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Wren and pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher, who flew higher than anyone in history to learn about the weather, an adventure that despite its Amazon origins deserves to be seen in big screen glory.

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