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Five to see at the LFF: period dramas

Period films bring the past back to life, giving us a colourful glimpse into lives from another era. Here are five to see at the 57th BFI London Film Festival.

Samuel Wigley
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12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

What’s it about?

In the years before the American Civil War, a violinist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) living in New York is abducted and sold into slavery, ending up working under the yoke of an abusive plantation boss (Michael Fassbender).

Who made it?

Steve McQueen made the move from Turner Prize-winning video artist to film director with 2005’s Hunger, the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, starring Michael Fassbender as IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. His second of now three Fassbender collaborations was 2011’s Shame, about a New York advertising executive grappling with sex addiction.

What critics are saying

“Stark, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave is not just a great film but a necessary one. […] 12 Years a Slave is a scarifying, unblinking portrayal of life as it was for tens of thousands of people less than 200 years ago. It pulls no punches. But neither does it lecture. McQueen chooses to let all the actions and inactions convey their own message.” Paul MacInnes, The Guardian

The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman (2013)

The Invisible Woman (2013)

What’s it about?

Over the decades, Charles Dickens’s novels have furnished us with countless literary adaptations, but the great author gets his own period drama in The Invisible Woman. Set in 19th-century London, it tells the little-known story of the ageing Dickens’s relationship with an 18-year-old theatre actress (Felicity Jones).

Who made it?

Ralph Fiennes stars as Dickens and also returns to the director’s chair following his acclaimed 2011 debut Coriolanus, a modern-day version of the Shakespeare tragedy. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander co-star.

What critics are saying

“A revelatory performance by 29-year-old rising star Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) is the chief but hardly only virtue of The Invisible Woman, a superior piece of grist for the Masterpiece Theater/Merchant Ivory mill, so tastefully mounted and brilliantly acted that it wears down even the corset-phobic’s innate resistance to such things. Indeed, this second feature directing effort for Ralph Fiennes […] is that rare Brit costumer that feels vibrantly alive, pulsing with subtle eroticism.” Scott Foundas, Variety

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying (2013)

As I Lay Dying (2013)

What’s it about?

Adapted from William Faulkner’s classic novel, this family melodrama takes us back to the Deep South during the Depression era, where James Franco and Tim Blake Nelson play two brothers in a farming family who must transport the coffin of their mother across country to be buried alongside her birth family.

Who made it?

Ever prolific, James Franco (Milk, 2008; 127 Hours, 2010) needs little introduction as an actor, but his career is now gathering pace as a director, with several idiosyncratic projects to his name. His film Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) screened at the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival this year.

What critics are saying

“James Franco has pulled off a devilishly difficult literary adaptation with this faithful yet cinematically vibrant version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. […] Franco’s storytelling is confident and sure-handed, both with the camera, which, in the capable hands of Christina Voros, roams around to capture privileged moments, and the actors, who all seem to have seized their characters with their entire beings.” Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

La Belle et la Bête

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

La Belle et la Bête (1946)

What’s it about?

The 18th-century fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast gets an immaculate on-screen treatment in this dreamlike French fantasy from 1946. Showing at the Festival in a new restoration, it contains some of cinema’s most enchanting special effects – from human candelabra lining the walls of the castle to the paws of the Beast (Jean Marais), which smoke after a killing.

Who made it?

Poet, novelist and painter, Jean Cocteau brought his surrealist flights of fancy to filmmaking with a handful of classic films, from his debut Blood of a Poet in 1930 to Orphée (1950), a modern revisioning of the Orpheus mythology. La Belle et la Bête is one of cinema’s greatest fantasy films.

What critics are saying

“Before Disney’s 1991 film and long before the Beast started signing autographs in Orlando, Jean Cocteau filmed Beauty and the Beast in 1946, in France. It is one of the most magical of all films. Before the days of computer effects and modern creature makeup, here is a fantasy alive with trick shots and astonishing effects, giving us a Beast who is lonely like a man and misunderstood like an animal.” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Story of My Death

The Story of My Death (2013)

The Story of My Death (2013)

What’s it about?

Casanova comes to face-to-face with Count Dracula in this piece of imagined history set on the cusp of the 19th century, as the idealism of the Enlightenment segues into the Romanticism and violence of a new era.

Who made it?

No stranger to times past, Catalan auteur Albert Serra made a name for himself internationally with Honour of the Knights (2006), a reimagining of Don Quixote, and Birdsong (2010), a resetting of the Biblical story of the three wise men.

What critics are saying

“Serra’s interpretation is something akin to an anti-biopic that turns the characters into symbols of history in flux. […] Shot on digital video but warmly lit primarily with natural light, Story of My Death retains an ancient feel on par with sifting through Casanova’s texts. But Serra also infuses his work with a dreamlike quality that quickly defines the proceedings.” Eric Kohn, indiewire.com

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