15 October 2016

London Film Festival 2016 Part III: Nocturnal Animals

After tonight's UK premiere of Nocturnal Animals at the London Film Festival last night, I saw someone tweeting that Tom Ford's talents are wasted as a designer. I don't agree with that and yet it is remarkable that Nocturnal Animals is only Ford's second picture. It is literally breathtaking, beautiful and devastating with a superb performances from Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Before heading into the cinema, I managed to snap a few red carpet shots, including of Mark Kermode interviewing Ford and Taylor-Johnson; co-star Armie Hammer and his wife; and the arrival of Amy Adams (wearing Tom Ford, of course).

They were joined on the stage by one of the young co-stars, Ellie Bamber, to introduce the film along with London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart. Ford didn't say much about the film: "it should speak for itself," he explained.

I hadn't read much about Nocturnal Animals beyond the description in the LFF programme — and after reading the blurbs about dozens of films, I didn't remember a great deal. This actually worked in my favour as Nocturnal Animals is the kind of film best experienced from a blank slate. Although, as usual I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, it's hard to discuss this film without going into some of the details about the plot so you may wish to click away now if you want to see this film completely fresh.

The opening scene is one of the most arresting I've ever seen: visual striking, it is at once brash and enigmatic, beautiful and sad — much like the film itself. It turns out that the sequence relates to the new opening at Susan (Adams)'s gallery. She and her businessman husband Hutton (Hammer) live in a beautiful house in Los Angeles and appear to have a perfect life and yet, she confesses to her friend at a party, "I feel ungrateful not to be happy." Her friend asks if she still loves Hutton but she never gets the chance to answer.

The following morning, Susan receives a package in the mail from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) — a proof copy of his first novel, entitled Nocturnal Animals. "I didn't know he could write," sniffs Hutton, before heading off to New York. Susan, meanwhile, begins to devour the book, and the film splits into three at this point, alternating between Susan's life in LA and her reactions to the novel; the dark story-within-the-story of the novel; and flashbacks to the earlier years of Susan and Edward's relationship.

In the novel, for reasons that remain unclear, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) drive off in their car through rural Texas late at night. But, after a terrifying car chase, they are driven off the road by a gang of young thugs headed up by Ray (a terrifying Taylor-Johnson), who clearly have far worse things than carjacking in mind. Later, Detective Bobby Andes (an understated but brilliant Shannon) must try to get to the bottom of the crime — and to ensure that justice is served.

Although the tone is more languorous than fast-paced, Nocturnal Animals remains supremely gripping as we try to unravel the various mysteries of the film and determine exactly what point Edward's novel is trying to make. Fragments of dialogue — sometimes even single words — seep from the flashbacks into Edward's novel and cause present-day Susan substantial pain. Watching her react to chapters of the novel immediately after we have, although with a very different perspective, is narratively very interesting. Adams excels in this challenging role, conveying so much just with her eyes. There are also some fabulous cameos from the likes of Michael Sheen (Susan's friend's gay husband), Jena Malone (a fellow museum board member whose 'creative' outfit trumps even her Hunger Games costumes), and Laura Linney as Susan's overbearing mother ("Just wait," she threatens. "We all eventually turn into our mothers.").

Visually, the film is as gorgeous as you would expect from Tom Ford, cutting from the twinkling lights and modernist architecture of LA to sunrise in the Texas desert. Abel Korzeniowski's haunting score could have slipped right out of a 1950s film noir and is the perfect complement. I left Nocturnal Animals feeling emotionally bruised (in need of a stiff whiskey, like Susan) and yet wishing I could watch the film again; I think I would get even more from it the second time. Complex, beautiful and tragic, I think it might make my top five films of the year.

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