The Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s longest continuously-running film festival and now in its 73rd year, runs between 19 and 30 June. It opens with the European premiere of Boyz in the Wood (2019), which is not a tribute to the late John Singleton but rather a dark, folk horror-influenced comedy set in the Scottish Highlands, from writer-director Ninian Doff. The world premiere of Mrs. Lowry & Son (2019) closes the festival: Adrian Noble’s light-hearted biopic of L.S. Lowry (Timothy Spall) portrays the painter long before he was established as one of the 20th century’s greatest artists, devoted to but frustrated with his bitter mother, Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave).
Beyond the bookend galas, there are many premieres (including world-first screenings of 18 features), discoveries and retrospectives of note. Here are 10 highlights from the packed programme.
Among the various UK premieres of established festival circuit favourites, Synonyms is quite the coup for EIFF, having won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale. The latest from writer-director Nadav Lapid, Synonyms follows a young Israeli man absconding to Paris to flee his nationality, refusing to speak Hebrew, with only a Franco-Israeli dictionary as his guide through the culture barriers. Surprisingly, the film is currently listed as not having a UK distributor, so this may be British audiences’ lone chance to catch the film on the big screen.
One of a number of EIFF titles with backing from the BFI Film Fund, Scheme Birds has a local interest element for Scottish attendees of the festival. Set in Motherwell, the hybrid documentary presents a compassionate portrait of teenage ‘scheme bird’ Gemma, a young mother who has little desire to ever leave the North Lanarkshire town where she hangs out with her jailbird boyfriend. Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin’s debut won the Best Documentary Feature prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
With more than 25 years of big and small screen credits to his name, actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje may be best known to many for his major roles in the influential TV series Oz and Lost. As a writer-director, his debut feature, Farming, has been in gestation for much of the last decade. Dramatising his own childhood, it follows Enitan (Damson Idris), who is left in the care of a white British foster family by his Nigerian parents, hoping it will provide better opportunities. Instead, the teenager comes to lead a skinhead gang. Among the stacked supporting cast, which includes Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself, is Kate Beckinsale, playing against type as the working-class foster mother who’s at odds with Enitan.
Samurai Marathon 1855
With a filmography that zips back and forth between horror movies, Tolstoy adaptations, biopics and digital experiments, the unpredictable career path of Bernard Rose has made him one of the most intriguing British directors working today. Few would have predicted his latest feature: a Japanese-language film set in the 1850s, in which an ageing feudal lord sets his lazy samurais the challenge of completing a marathon, to train them in response to the imminent arrival of American imperialists. Philip Glass, Rose’s Candyman collaborator, composes the film’s score.
Largely populated by a cast of unknowns and made by an almost all-women crew, this Canadian teen drama from director Jasmin Mozaffari, making her feature debut, is one of the most interesting-sounding offerings in light of the festival’s pledge to substantially increase the number of films from female filmmakers in its programme. Inspired by the writer-director’s own experiences of sexual harassment in her youth, Firecrackers tackles feminine rage and the power dynamics of gender head-on.
Ruben Brandt, Collector
Fans of animation, young and old, are well-served by this year’s EIFF programme. For the adults, Milorad Krstic’s inventive Hungarian art heist adventure sees four master thieves attempt to swipe every famous artwork that is haunting the dreams of their shared psychotherapist. Somehow, this looks and sounds even stranger than the animated Luis Buñuel biopic, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, that’s also at the festival.
Screening slots just before midnight see some of the festival’s wildest genre offerings come out to play. One highlight, retrospective-wise, is a double bill of 3D Nicolas Cage films (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Drive Angry), presented by the team behind Glasgow’s annual Cage-a-rama festival. Of the newer titles, Darlin’ shows significant promise. A standalone sequel to Lucky McKee’s cult horror The Woman (2011), it sees star Pollyanna McIntosh reprise that film’s eponymous role, while also taking on directing duties this time around.
Each year, EIFF shines a spotlight on the national cinema of a different country, showcasing exciting new films and notable influential titles from the region. This year, it’s Spain’s turn, with the strand including a retrospective for director Icíar Bollaín, alongside select favourites from Pablo Berger, Iván Zulueta, Álex de la Iglesia, Pedro Almodóvar and Nacho Vigalondo. A late-night screening of Alejandro Amenábar’s chilling breakthrough feature, Thesis, looks to be one of the most exciting events from the Spanish celebration.
Transgender filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s second feature is loosely based on the 1982 German novel So Schön, by Ronald M. Schernikau, and transplants the story to modern day New York City. An observational portrait of four young queer and trans people, this documentary-style anthology, which debuted at Berlinale, looks to be one of the more quietly radical films in the festival’s American Dreams strand.
Excluding the final film by the late Agnès Varda, Varda by Agnès (2019), Joanna Hogg’s latest comes to EIFF with perhaps the loudest fanfare of any title in the festival. Inspired by Hogg’s own experiences, The Souvenir sees Honor Swinton Byrne, in her first major role, play a young film student in the 1980s who becomes romantically involved with an untrustworthy fellow (Tom Burke). With the sequel already filming in the UK, EIFF not only presents British audiences with an early look at the late summer release, but also the chance of a scoop on what’s to come if the director and her returning cast, including Tilda Swinton, manage to drop by during a gap in their schedule.