Eleven-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), vacation at a Turkish beach resort in the late 1990s. They swim, play pool, and enjoy each other’s company; they’re partners in crime. Calum is the best version of himself when he is with Sophie. Sophie feels like anything is possible when Calum is around. However, cracks begin to emerge in the facade Calum is trying to maintain in order to give Sophie a perfect holiday.
It’s a pretty remarkable fact that Aftersun is Charlotte Wells’ debut feature: the command of the camera, the emotional intelligence of the narrative, the palpable atmosphere that weighs heavy throughout the film’s duration is something expected of a seasoned filmmaker. But perhaps it’s Wells’s lack of previous features that makes the film so spectacular; she’s not being repressed by formulas or rules, willing to create a film that plays with structure and point of view and mixes technical mediums and performance, combining to make what is, in my opinion, one of the most moving features of this year.
The technical craft of Aftersun is what helps to evoke nostalgic longing and lingering sadness. But it’s the performances from Corio and Mescal that catapult the film into a whole other league. The subtleties of Mescal’s controlled performance proved that he is a star in the making (fearful that his performance in Normal People was a fluke, particularly with the string of mediocre roles he has been given since). The way he so effortlessly communicates his character's inner distress, while maintaining a lighthearted demeanour for the sake of his daughter is a masterclass in acting… which is even more remarkable for an actor so early in his career. And while Mescal may be doing the heavy lifting in terms of emotional labour, his co-star’s unadulterated innocence and pure spirit melt the narrative’s hard edges, causing the film’s overall melancholic ambience to hit even harder.
The pair work effortlessly together and project that familiar bond between parent and child. Should Wells have messed up the casting, the film would have been far less moving than it is now. — Review by Shelby Cooke
Empire of Light
Sam Mendes is a director known for his blockbuster epics: Skyfall, 1917 or Jarhead. And he’s good at what he does. But unlike the James Cameron’s, the David Fincher’s or the Christopher Nolan’s, Mendes’ films always seem to allow room for sensitivity and silence and for characters to bloom; his blockbusters have moments that feel more arthouse than Hollywood, harking back to his origins as a stage director and independent filmmaker.
But rather than just a brief moment in an overall action-filled film, Empire of Light takes this theory and puts it into action for the entire film. While the aesthetic of the film emulates the imagery of a big Hollywood film with specialised lighting, impeccable sound, grandiose sets and a sweeping score, the narrative itself is a humble character study, exploring the subtitles of the human experience and our interaction with art. There’s an otherworldliness to the images on screen; Roger Deakin’s exceptional cinematography parallels his work from other traditional Hollywood films such as No Country for Old Men or Blade Runner 2049. But then you have a wonderfully compassionate story about this odd group of outsiders and how the medium of cinema brings them all together. Mendes combines the best of visual storytelling with the heart of a simple narrative, showcasing that cinema can be both art and entertainment.
But at the core of Empire of Light is an exceptional cast of actors, who bring each of these quirky characters to life. Olivia Colman, as usual, is an exceptional talent. You can’t take your eyes off her; she radiates off the screen, completely engulfing you in the madness of her world. Equally, Michael Ward pairs perfectly with Colman, as the chemistry between the two is electric despite the obvious age gap but less obvious screen experience.
Empire of Light is not your typical Sam Mendes film. If you go in expecting it to be fast-paced and action-packed, you will be disappointed. But if you long for a movie similar to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and to just be drenched in love for the craft of filmmaking, then you will be pleasantly pleased. — Review by Shelby Cooke
The Eternal Daughter
This haunting mystery from director Joanna Hogg stars Tilda Swinton in a mesmerising performance as a woman forced to confront past memories while visiting an eerily empty old manor.
Joanna Hogg has established herself as a director who plays with genres: she takes established tropes and themes and subverts them, unafraid to interpret the traditional language of cinema and create her own visual dialect that runs throughout all her features. In The Souvenir, Hogg tackles the fundamentals of cinema itself. But in The Eternal Daughter, she narrows in on a specific genre, displaying her ability to take what she did at a macro-level in The Souvenir and focus it into a micro exploration of cinema.
Between Hogg’s unsettled camera and uncanny atmosphere, the film truly captures the awkward tension found not just in haunted homes, but more so in the establishment of the British class system and its rigid emotional expectations. Drawing on the same character dynamics established in The Souvenir, Julie and her mother are just as much trapped in this eerie estate home as they are in the system that suffocates them. And it’s an interesting decision on Hogg’s part to feature these characters again while actively refusing to label this as The Souvenir Part III. We can take their already fleshed-out history and relationship but now apply it to a new genre and story. This is absolutely fascinating new territory Hogg is playing in; she’s essentially creating her own arthouse version of the cinematic universe.
Of course, there’s Tilda Swinton. The way she so effortlessly transforms between the two women is astonishing and thoroughly captivating. She gives them each their own individuality and quirks, while also incorporating the characterisation, particularly of Julie (played by her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir), that had been established in the other two films. It’s a feat that can only be accomplished by Tilda Swinton.
While I wouldn’t say The Eternal Daughter is as masterful as The Souvenir (not much can top the electricity I felt while watching Part II for the first time), it still exhibits Hogg’s command for the medium, adding yet another provoking and unique film to her already exceptional portfolio. — Review by Shelby Cooke
Sick of Myself
Last year, Renate Reinsve’s Julie was the worst person in Oslo… this year, it’s Signe.
Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Thomas (Eirik Sæther) are in an unhealthy, competitive relationship that takes a vicious turn when Thomas suddenly breaks through as a contemporary artist. In response, Signe makes a desperate attempt to regain her status by creating a new persona hell-bent on attracting attention and sympathy.
Kristoffer Borgli’s Norwegian feature is a tainted caricature of the millennial woman, obsessed with image and self, willing to actually die for the attention she longs for. His sardonic black comedy features a captivating (albeit emotionally confusing) performance from Thorp as Signe, who plays with your rational and moral mindset, forcing you to question whether Signe should take the title of worst person in the world or if she’s just a product of our contemporary culture. But, of course, like all films that use extensive prosthetics, there’s only so much acting that can happen with that much silicone on your face.
While I appreciated Borgli’s attempt at a balanced point of view (showing both the real illness Signe has along with her fictionalised ones), the narrative gets convoluted and confusing to follow at points, as we don’t know whether our narrator will be trustworthy and truthful at that moment or if she will be putting on yet another performance. It felt as if Borgli’s film was grounded too much in reality to fully communicate its satirical message. The film’s production felt more like a social drama than an outrageous commentary on modern vanity, which could be the deciding factor as to why the jumps in perspective flowed so unnaturally. But overall, this was just a small issue for the overall film; you may have to just work harder and think more to follow along… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a film that asks you to think about the complexities of our media-obsessed society.
Borgli’s film, while reminiscent of the works from other Scandinavian filmmakers (Joachim Trier, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg), doesn’t have quite the same impact as the films that inspired it, but it’s still interesting enough to keep you entertained. — Review by Shelby Cooke
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