For the 63rd time, the BFI London Film Festival will present the best in world cinema at venues across the capital between 2-13 October. Under the stewardship of Tricia Tuttle for the first time, the typically diverse and considered programme presents 229 features and 116 shorts from 78 countries. LFF may not be the behemoth it once was in terms of time and this year's slate may be short on major works by front-rank film-makers. But it still provides an invaluable snapshot of the state of cinema across all five continents. Moreover, at a time when so many horizons appear to be narrowing, LFF offers emerging talent a prestigious showcase, while also encouraging female film-makers by ensuring that an estimable 40% of titles have been directed or co-directed by women. 


A greater emphasis has been placed on red carpet events at the London Film Festival since the turn of the century and the press and selfie hunters (who wants autographs these days) will be cramming into Leicester Square for the banner screenings. Launching proceedings is Armando Iannucci's The Personal History of David Copperfield, which is the eighth cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel. Setting out to capture the cosmopolitan nature of Victorian London, the picture challenges the conventions of costume drama by casting Dev Patel in the title role and Benedict Wong as Mr Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes and Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mrs Steerforth, as well as Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick, Peter Capaldi as Mr Micawber and Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep. 

Iannucci has compared his approach to that of Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). So, it's apt that the New Yorker should occupy the Closing Night slot with The Irishman, which will be showing on the same night at the Curzon Oxford in a novel hook-up with the LFF. Ultimately destined for Netflix, this pugnacious drama reunites Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, as well as such Scorsese stalwarts as Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, in an investigation into the life and unresolved death of Teamsters union boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), which draws on the memoirs of Frank Sheeran (De Niro) and makes pioneering use of digital techniques to take 40 years off the venerable stars so they can play their characters across the decades. 

Netflix is also behind David Michôd's The King, which he and fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton have adapted from three of the plays in William Shakespeare's Henriad. The latter has also taken the plum role of Sir John Falstaff, while Timothée Chalamet makes the transition from Prince Hal to Henry V and Robert Pattinson essays the Dauphin. Staying in the past, the scene shifts to 1862 for Tom Harper's The Aeronauts, which reunites The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as James Glaisher and Amelia Wren, as they embark upon a record-breaking flight in a hot-air balloon. Keep an eye out for a cameo by the Bodleian Library

The cosy tone continues in Marielle Heller's A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, which stars Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, who presented the popular American TV children's show, Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood (1968-2001). Coming a year after Morgan Neville's documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbour?, this feels a bit like overkill, especially for British audiences, who never got to see any of the c.900 episodes of the enduring pre-school educational programme. The stellar wattage James Mangold's Le Mans `66 (known in the US as Ford v Ferrari) after Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt walked away. But petrolheads will still enjoy watching Christian Bale and Matt Damon play British racing driver Ken Miles and American car designer, Carroll Shelby, as they prepare the Ford GT40 for its debut during the 24-hour race at Le Mans in 1966. 

Satire often sparks controversy. Yet Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit has not provoked the furore one might have expected in adapting Christine Leunens's novel, Caging Skies, which examines the change of heart that Hitler Youth member Jojo Betlzer (Roman Griffin Davis) undergoes when he drifts apart from imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), on discovering that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a fugitive Jewish girl named Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie). The comedy is more contemporary and a bit more on the nose in Michael Winterbottom's Greed, a mockumentary clearly inspired by the recent fall from grace of a high street fashion tycoon. Steve Coogan stars as Sir Richard `Greedy' McCreadie at the head of an ensemble that also includes Isla Fisher as his wife, Shirley Henderson as his aged Irish mammy, David Mitchell as a self-loathing biographer and Sarah Solemani as the PR trying fruitlessly to persuade Elton John to play at a gaudy 60th birthday bash on the Greek island of Mykonos.

This knowing jibe could well have shared the title of Rian Johnson's Knives Out, which also centres around a birthday bash. The celebrant is 85 year-old crime writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who hopes to reunite his dysfunctional family. However, he doesn't last the night and famous sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suspects foul play. With Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson among the ensemble, this is a wry retooling of the country house whodunnit.  

Divorce dominates the last two gala dramas. Annette Bening and Bill Nighy's comfortably dull 33-year marriage hits the rocks when he announces he is leaving her for another woman in William Nicholson's Hope Gap, while Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver head into Kramer vs Kramer territory in Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, another Netflix production that features standout supporting turns from Laura Dern and Alan Alda as the couple's respective lawyers. 


Although LFF has given prizes since its earliest days, they have never attained the prestige of the Palme d'or, Golden Bear or Golden Lion presented at Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Indeed, London has never really been a competitive festival. Yet, three distinct categories have been built into the 2019 programme. 

The `Official Competition' rarely pits the big names against each other, as is common at other festivals. There are some accomplished film-makers among the runners and riders this year, but they will only be familiar to dedicated followers of arthouse. Regular readers of this column will know all about Pole Malgorzata Szumowska, who makes her English-language debut with The Other Lamb, in which teenager Raffey Cassidy begins to lose faith in Michiel Huisman, the `Shepherd' tending a religious cult known as `The Flock'. Religious conformity is also the theme of Thomas Clay's Fanny Lye Deliver'd, which harks back to Shropshire in the 1650s to show how strangers Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds sew discord between Maxine Peake and her puritanical farmer husband, Charles Dance. 

The darker side of devotion is also explored by Rose Glass in her much-feted debut, Saint Maud, which centres on the unhealthy desire of traumatised nurse Morfydd Clark to save the soul of disabled ex-dancer, Jennifer Ehle. Having made history by becoming the first trans woman of colour to direct and star in a competition film at Venice, Isabel Sandoval brings Lingua Franca to LFF, in which she plays an undocumented carer whose hopes of securing a Green Card come to rely on Eamon Farren, the unstable grandson of Lynn Cohen, the Russian-Jewish woman Sandoval looks after in the Brighton Beach district of New York. 

The key to Ann Skelly's future likes in her past in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's Rose Plays Julie, as classes on animal euthanasia persuade the veterinary student to contact the birth mother who have her up for adoption. However, successful London actress Orla Brady wants nothing to do with her. Thesping and parenting also clash in Alma Har'el's Honey Boy, which star Shia LaBeouf scripted from a demon-conquering exercise he enacted in rehab. LaBeouf plays the father of ex-child star Lucas Hedges, who reflects on the relationship between his younger self (Noah Jupe) and the former rodeo clown with a self-destructive streak. 

A very different kind of childhood is chronicled by Colombian Alejandro Landes in Monos, which is set on a mountain somewhere in South America and follows the efforts of a gang of child soldiers with names like Wolf, Dog, Boom Boom, Swede, Rambo, Smurf, Lady and Bigfoot to guard over Julianne Nicholson, the American doctor they are holding hostage. Military service of a more conventional kind comes under scrutiny in Cape Towner Oliver Hermanus's Moffie, which stars Kai Luke Brummer and Ryan de Villiers and examines homophobia in the South African Defence Force during the border conflict with Angola in the early 1980s. 

The focus falls on a soldier's guilty conscience in Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante's La Llorona (aka The Weeping Woman), as retired general Julio Diaz tried for his part in the 1980s genocide and becomes troubled by the spirit of María Mercedes Coroy, whom he shot along with her sons with the callous words, `If you cry, I will kill you.' A need to put things right also inspires Saudi Arabian doctor Mila Al Zahrani to stand for election in Haifaa Al-Mansour's The Perfect Candidate. However, being the only female on the ballot ruffles feathers, especially when Al Zahrani insists on showing her face in the campaign spot made by her wedding videographer sister, Dae Al Hilali, and insists on directly addressing the men attending her rallies.

The Sutherland Trophy is LFF's oldest award. Named after 1950s BFI patron George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland. it became the prize presented to the best first feature in the 1990s. A notable front runner for the 2019 competition is Mati Diop's Atlantique, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes after the actress-director had become the first black woman to premiere a film in competition on being nominated for the Palme d'or. Expanded from the 2009 documentary short, Atlantiques, the story shifts from realism to mysticism after Dakar construction worker Ibrahima Traore decides to sail from Senegal in search of work and lover Mame Benita Sane is faced with the prospect of marrying an older men when his pirogue disappears. 

A building project also drives the action in Joe Talbot's The Last Black Man in San Francisco, as Jimmie Fails moves in with buddy Jonathan Majors and his grandfather, Danny Glover, while attempting to reclaim and renovate the fin-de-siècle Filmore home that his family had been forced to vacate after the neighbourhood demographic had changed. Germn first-timer Mariko Minoguchi puts a different spin on the role that fate plays in life in Relativity, as Edin Hasanovic keeps popping up to protect supermarket cashier Saskia Rosendahl after she loses the will to live following the death of physics student boyfriend Julius Feldmeier during  bank raid.

Another woman feels control slipping through her fingers in Halina Reijn's Instinct, as Dutch psychologist Carice van Houten becomes irresistibly drawn to Marwan Kenzari, a violent sex offender she insists is not yet fit for rehabilitation. The potentially transformative bond that 14 year-old Park Ji-hu forges in Bora Kim's House of Hummingbird is with crammer teacher Kim Sae-byuk, who persuades her that life in mid-1990s Seoul is worth living after she experiences domestic difficulties, romantic disappointments and a health scare. 

Drug dealers provide the connection between Australian Shannon Murphy's Babyteeth and National Film and Television School graduate Nick Rowland's Calm With Horses. The pusher in the first story is Toby Wallace. But, while Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis thoroughly disapprove of him, they can't help but notice the positive effect he has on their gravely ill daughter, Eliza Scanlen. Ex-boxer Cosmo Jarvis also wants to do the best he can for five year-old autistic son, Kiljan Moroney, and his ex-girlfriend, Niamh Algar. But he has to remain on his guard whenever the hair-triggered Ned Dennehy is around after he becomes the minder to Barry Keoghan, whose uncle is a powerful Irish drug baron. 

Named after John Grierson, the Scottish pioneer who coined the term `documentary', the Grierson Award has been presented to the LFF's best actuality since 1971. There are a couple of familiar names among the contenders, including Australian Richard Lowenstein who is ideally placed to make Mystify: Michael Hutchence, as he directed many of INXS's videos and starred the enigmatic frontman (who died at the age of 37 in 1997) in his 1986 cult classic, Dogs in Space. Docuficianados will also be familiar with the oeuvre of Dane Mads Brügger, who teams up with Swedish investigator Göran Björkdahl in Cold Case Hammarskjöld to examine the conspiracy theories that have grown up around the Zambian plane crash that killed the second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, in 1961.

The part played by the CIA and MI6 in the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh is considered by Taghi Amirani in Coup 53, while in A Pleasure, Comrades!, José Filipe Costa reflects on the social, sexual and educational changes that occurred in Portugal following the 1975 Carnation Revolution. Completing this historical triptych is Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker, which explores the legacy of Imelda Marcos and the impact that decades of dictatorship has had on the female population of the Philippines. Intriguingly, Sung-a Yoon provides the perfect companion piece in Overseas, which reveals how Filipino women are trained to work as domestic servants around the world. 

Education of the more cerebral sort is considered in I Am (Not) A Monster, in which director Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian (who is also the founder of the University of the Underground) traces the evolution of knowledge and the threat posed to it in the philistinic modern world. Completing the Grierson shortlist are a couple of art docs, as Alla Kovgan celebrates the achievements of choreographer Merce Cunningham in Cunningham, and Rubika Shah recalls in White Riot how reggae and punk formed an unlikely alliance in the mid-1970s in the Rock Against Racism protest movement.


There's no question which title most catches the eye in the Special Presentations section, as Céline Sciamma ventures into the distant past for the first time in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It's 1760 and Adèle Haenel has returned to her home in Brittany from a convent following the death of her sister. Countess mother Valeria Golino wants to marry her to a rich suitor in Milan. But he requires a portrait and Golino persuades artist Noémie Merlant to pose as a maid and walking companion because she knows that Haenel is dead against marriage and would never content to sit for a painting. 

Although some of its themes overlap, the tone of Michael Caton-Jones's Our Ladies could scarcely be more different. Set in the 1990s and starring 
Eve Austin, Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Sally Messham, Rona Morison and Marli Siu, this adaptation of Alan Warner's The Sopranos follows the choirgirls from the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in a sleepy Highland port to the temptation-strewn streets of Edinburgh. Propriety is also found wanting in Cory Finley's Bad Education, which takes us back to the turn of the millennium for a true-life tale of schoolduggery that has been scripted by eyewitness Mike Makowsky and shows how a student reporter named Rachel Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) exposed the $11.2 million fraud perpetuated by Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the superintendent of the upmarket New York suburb of Roslyn, and his assistant, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). 

A failed duty of care also lies at the heart of Pablo Larrain's Ema. which is set in the Southern Chilean city of Valparaiso and centres on the blame game played by choreographer Gael García Bernal and dancer wife Mariana Di Girolamo over their failure to make a go of raising the adopted son who had burned down their home. Despite the tonal disparity, this would slot neatly into a double bill with Sarah Gavron's Rocks, which is set in East London and charts the efforts of 11 year-old British Nigerian girl. Bukky Bakray, to prevent the local authority from discovering that she and younger brother D'Angelou Osei Kissiedu have been abandoned by their mother. 

A missing sister brings Kamala to the big city in Gitanjali Rao's animated drama, Bombay Rose. Having fled a Hindu child marriage in Madhya Pradesh, Kamala sells flowers in Mumbai. So does Kashmiri Muslim, Salim, a daydreamer besotted with Bollywood adventure. But he steals his blooms from the local cemetery and the theft of a carmine rose brings the children into contact with Shirley, an Anglo-Indian actress who finds the past more accommodating than the present. Susan Sarandon is also facing her final curtain call in Roger Michell's Blackbird, a remake of Dane Bille August's Silent Heart (2014). But, while husband Sam Neill supports her decision to end her life before she's overtaken by terminal illness, daughters Kate Winslet and Mia Wasikowska have very personal reasons for dissuading her. 

A grim prognosis also proves key to First Love, the 103rd and latest offering by the prolific Japanese auteur, Takashi Miike, which takes us on a hectic charge around downtown Tokyo, as boxer Masataka Kubota shrugs off the fact he has been diagnosed with a brain tumour to protect Sakurako Konishi, a prostitute caught up in a drug deal involving a treacherous yakuza, a corrupt cop and a female assassin belonging to a Chinese Triad. 

The Experimenta strand can be a bit hit and miss, but it's always one of the more intriguing elements of the LFF programme. The inimitable Ben Rivers makes a welcome return in tandem with Anocha Suwichakornpong for Krabi, 2562, a distinctive meditation on life in the eponymous tourist resort in southern Thailand. Louis Henderson and Olivier Marboeuf and Brad Butler and Noorafshan Mirza also form directorial double acts for Ouvertures and Ruptures. The former uses the translation process from French to Creole of Édouard Glissant's play, Monsieur Toussaint, to reflect on the legacy of the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, while the latter examines how a Turkish MP, a right-wing assassin, a retired police commissioner and an ordinary woman came to be involved in a car crash. 

The legend of a Roma woman who refused to die after being shot eight times by the Nazis is recalled in Roz Mortimer's The Deathless Woman, while Mariah Garnett's Trouble reflects on the director's relationship with her estranged father, David, whom she has not seen since she was two. However, there's nothing mawkish about this personal reflection, as Garnett plays her father as a young activist in 1970s Northern Ireland and casts trans actress Robyn Reihill as his girlfriend.

Nina Danino recalls the cople songs that her mother used to sing in I Die of Sadness Crying For You, which recalls the musical genre that was popular in Spain in the 1930s and 40s. And Jeffrey Perkins gathers more fond reminiscences from the likes of Jonas Mekas, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik in George: The Story of George, a celebration of the life and art of George Maciunas, the Lithuanian émigré who was a founding member and driving force behind the Fluxus movement in 1960s New York. 

A couple of gems from French cinema's dazzling innovative silent era provide a neat bridge into the Treasures From the Archive section. René Clair's Paris qui dort (1925) is a delightful slice of screen surrealism that sees Eiffel Tower attendant Henri Rollan discover that scientist Charles Martinelli has brought the City of Light to a virtual standstill with his `crazy ray'. The style owes more to Impressionism in Jean Epstein's Finis Terrae (1929), which charts the declining relationship between Breton fishermen Ambroise Rouzic and Jean-Marie Laot when the former tries to hide an infected thumb while harvesting seaweed on the island of Bannec. 

We remain in silence for the restored print of George Pearson's Love, Life and Laughter (1923), which was discovered in an incomplete state in a Dutch archive after being believed lost for almost a century. Betty Balfour and Harry Jonas star as the chorine and the writer who agree to meet up two years hence to see if they have fulfilled their dreams. Pearson was a pivotal figure in British silent cinema, while Balfour was known as `the Queen of Happiness'. So, this is very much a find to be celebrated and one can only hope that the BFI make it widely available after the festival, along with George Nichols, Jr. and Wanda Tuchock's The Finishing School (1934), which is one of the three features that the prolific screenwriter directed during a career that spanned the silent and sound eras. Although Frances Dee is the star of this comic exposé of the prim Crockett Hall school for young ladies, it's impossible not to be distracted by such stalwarts as Beulah Bondi, Billie Burke, Anne Shirley and Sara Haden, as well as by a vivacious Ginger Rogers, who had already embarked upon her fabled partnership with Fred Astaire. 

Jumping foward to 1950, LFF dusts down Luis Buñuel's Las Olvidados (1950), which restored the Spanish director's international reputation with its magic neo-realist account of street life in a violent neighbourhood of Mexico City. It's also good to see the 60th anniversary of Ride Lonesome being marked with a festival outing. The fifth of the seven `Ranown' sagebrushers made by director Budd Boetticher and cowboy legend Randolph Scott, this handsome psychological Western sees bounty hunter Scott try to prevent Lee Van Cleef from rescuing his prisoner brother, James Best. 

A tantalising inclusion is Frank Beyer's Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), which was produced in East Germany for the state-run DEFA studio. Far too few of these films are available to view and this one is particularly notable, as Beyer borrows techniques from the more progressive Polish and Czech cinemas to tell an otherwise standard issue Socialist Realist story about Berliners Annekathrin Bürger and Armin Mueller-Stahl, whose loyalty to the Communist Party results in the latter being conscripted to a punishment battalion on the Eastern Front, where his commander is his former rival for Bürger's affections, Ulrich Thein. 

The Hollywood studio system might have been in decline in the 1960s, but it was still capable of creating films of great beauty across the generic range. Just look at the lustrous colours in Daniel Haller's production design, Laura Nightingale's costumes and Nicolas Roeg's photography in Roger Corman's 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death and the identical credits taken by Alexander Golitzen and George C. Webb, Edith Head and Robert Surtees in Sweet Charity (1969). Bob Fosse's dynamic adaptation of Neil Simon and Cy Coleman's musicalisation of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), which ridiculously didn't include a Best Actress nod for Shirley MacLaine among its three Oscar nominations. 

The inclusion of Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa's Muna Moto (1975) reminds us how under-represented African cinema is in the arthouse canon and the BFI and outlets like Netflix and Amazon Prime have a duty to make more repertory and contemorary titles available. Set in Cameroon, but adhering to the tenets of Third Cinema that were fixed in Latin America in the mid-1960s, the story turns on the refusal of the village elders to allow David Endéné to marry Arlette Din Belle because he is too poor to afford a dowry. According to tradition, she must marry his uncle, Philippe Abia, who is childless despite already having three wives. 

Francesco Rosi's Illustrious Corpses (1976) and David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) are much better known. The former contains a powerhouse performance by Lino Ventura as the detective investigating the murder of a Palermo judge, while John Hurt received an Oscar-nomination for his performance as John Merrick in the remarkable make-up designed by Christopher Tucker. Following the successful release of Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott's Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace, expect to see a lot more of George T. Nierenberg's Say Amen, Somebody (1982), which commemorates the talents of such gospel icons as Willie Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A Dorsey, Sallie Martin, the Barrett Sisters and the O'Neal Twins. 

Finally, there's a chance to catch up with two overlooked pictures directed by women. Björk Guðmundsdóttir made her acting debut in Nietzchka Keene's The Juniper Tree (1990), an adaptation of a Brothers Grimm saga that sees sisters Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) and Margit (Björk) use a love potion to find a home with widower Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) and his son Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) after their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir) is stoned for witchcraft. The fairytale goes just as sour for a Blackjack croupier in the Par-a-Dice casino in Las Vegas in Queen of Diamonds (1991), a neglected underground gem that saw writer-director Nina Menkes create the role of a lifetime for her actress sister, , Tinka Menkes.