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16 October 2014

LFF 2014 Part II: The Surprise Film

Attending the surprise film at the London Film Festival is a bit like supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers (trust me). Each year, great things are promised and speculation is rife, but then there's the inevitable disappointment: from Michael Moore diatribes and tedious Brighton Rock remakes, to OK but too quirky by half indies and epic Chinese-language martial arts films. The odds should have been in my favour this year.


And just as Wolves sometimes have a good season, this year's surprise film was a great choice: Alejandro González Iñárritu's brilliant and bonkers black comedy, Birdman. Past disappointments have taught me not to get my hopes up by researching potential surprise film candidates online, so I knew almost nothing about it, other than that Vulture seem to think it's going to pick up a lot of Oscar nominations. There's something awfully exciting about seeing a completely unexpected film: when the credits roll anything could happen, and in Birdman almost everything does happen.


The film's opening shot is of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) wearing nothing but his white y-fronts, levitating in his dressing room, facing away from the camera. A deep voice interrupts the silence. It sounds a lot like Marv in Sin City, but it is Riggan's inner monologue narrated, it turns out, by Birdman — the Batman- and Ironman-like action-hero character that made him famous.

Riggan's acting career has tanked since the end of the Birdman franchise, but he has a plan to regain his former glory and to soar over Broadway, metaphorically or otherwise. He has written a play based on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he is also directing and starring in. But the day before the first preview, the other lead actor (Jeremy Shamos) is injured on set and has to be replaced. Luckily, Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of the female co-stars, is dating a brilliant stage actor called Mike (Ed Norton), who agrees to step in. Mike seems to have mastered not only his own lines but the whole script by osmosis ("It's a thing that I have; a gift," he explains), and is already trying to "improve" it by pumping in a healthy dose of hyper-realism. Needless to say, the previews don't go well.

The rest of Riggan's life is also a mess. His young daughter Sam (Emma Stone) has just got out of rehab and is working as his assistant while she figures out what she wants to do and she is, of course, also falling for Mike. It's not especially clear what Riggan's feelings towards his hovering ex-wife or to Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the co-star he is dating, either.

Birdman covers a lot of ground. At its core, it is a tale of ego, but it's also about success, loneliness, regret and imagination. The stage vs movie actors dichotomy comes up, as does the ever-present battle between actors and critics. Lindsay Duncan plays a particularly ruthless New York Times theatre critic. "You're no actor," she tells Riggan, "you're a celebrity." Norton steals most of the scenes he is in, with his insane but inspired performance, but Keaton also does a fine job with a complex character, with good support from Stone, as well as from Watts and Riseborough, who are somewhat underused.

Iñárritu uses a lot of long-take close-ups of his actors, especially the female characters and especially when they are ranting at Riggan. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which reminded me a lot of Wes Anderson: dramatic moments are punctuated with riotous cymbals (Riggan eventually stumbles on the percussionist—perhaps only in his imagination—in a quiet corner of the labyrinthine Broadway theatre), while a doleful cello accompanies the sadder moments. Iñárritu couldn't be there in person last night, but we did get a video message from him at the start: "The film is what the film is" — cryptic, but a reference to a note in Riggan's dressing room.


Birdman is a great film for people who love actors and acting, whether on stage on at the cinema. With its great cast and interesting themes, it is also the best surprise film for several years. The last 15 or 20 minutes could have been tightened up, but otherwise it was a delight to watch.  Well done, London Film Festival; you've got it right at last.

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