Telluride Dispatch 1: Strong women mark the festival's first day

ScreenerBlog

Here we are, over in the Rockies one more time, breezing through the first fall film festival of the year, happening alongside Venice. It's raining constantly here in Telluride. It's cold and many don't seem to be fully prepared for it. Yet the breathtaking scenery and the sun—shyly showing its face for brief moments throughout the day, even causing a picturesque rainbow at one point—make up for the chill. And when this kind of beauty that no photo can do justice to serves as the backdrop of a stellar film festival program, all faults are forgiven in an instant.

This year's Telluride was surely off to a slightly bumpy start, with Aretha Franklin blocking the screening of the concert documentary Amazing Grace (about Franklin's infamous concert at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church) directed by Sydney Pollack. The early word (and the possibility of a cancellation) first dropped on Thursday, during the traditional and informal drinks gathering at the New Sheridan attended by several press and industry members who managed to arrive a day early. Following lengthy legal and technical battles that didn't seem to settle prior to the film's much anticipated showing, Franklin sought and was granted an injunction by a federal court only hours before the film's first screening on Friday. With no further comment from the festival, the film was dropped from the lineup.

But even with the cancellation of Amazing Grace, the Telluride program stands strong and is once again made up of gems waiting to be discovered, Cannes favorites and hotly anticipated premieres that will launch the awards season as its organic (and in some circles, dreaded) side effect. Despite programming major titles like Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs and Sarah Gavron's Suffragette in the lineup, festival co-directors Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy continue to firmly distance themselves from the "Oscar launch pad" narrative. Their attitude during the press conference was consistent with the previous years: Instead of talking about the "hot tickets," they chose to focus on some of the films that could fly under the radar. In that context, titles like Marguerite (directed by Xavier Giannoli, a story of an aspiring singer also being filmed by Stephen Frears with Meryl Streep), Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson) and Only the Dead See the End of the War (Michael Ware and Bill Guttentag) were highlighted as must-sees.

In addition to all the Aretha Franklin-dominated headlines, the first day of the festival was marked by remarkable women—both in front of and behind the camera—who took over the Telluride screens across town. The annual Patron & Press private screening at the Chuck Jones theater was Fox Searchlight's sole film in this year's lineup: the Davis Guggenheim-directed He Named Me Malala, portraying the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai; the Pakistani advocate and activist fighting for equal education rights for girls. Currently living in Birmingham, England with her family, Malala—as portrayed in Guggenheim's poignant doc—spends her days doing ordinary things every teen her age would do, as well as extraordinary things, like meeting Presidents, Prime Ministers or appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. We get to see her day to day, hear her talk about her faith, mission and observations on cultural differences between the East and West. Despite all the great intentions and a phenomenal subject, Guggenheim's documentary unfortunately lets down its amazingly rich material with a muddied structure that jumps back and forth in time too often, clouding the chronology, but more importantly, misses out on grounding the film in an emotional center. His focus on Malala's family life and use of animation as texture works to the film's advantage, but sadly, can't salvage it in the end. The real treat of the screening was undoubtedly the Ken Burns-moderated Q&A (with an audience that included Meryl Streep—a passionate equal rights advocate for women—and Rooney Mara), with Guggenheim, Malala's father Ziauddin Yousafzai and Malala Yousafzai herself joining via satellite with patchy connection. Guggenheim said the decision to turn the story into a documentary was made after they realized no one could play Malala but herself. Named after a legendary heroine, both Malala and her father said she makes her name her own, while denying the sidebar accusations that she is on this path because of pressure from her father. The highlight of the start-to-finish emotional Q&A was the moment when Malala said she forgives her shooters.

Following the opening night feed—a food and drinks feast for festival-goers on Colorado Avenue, underneath the picturesque SHOW banner—came my most-anticipated title of the festival: Sarah Gavron's Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan (who owns the film), Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw and Meryl Streep, in the very short but extremely crucial part of Emmeline Pankhurst. Telling the true story of the feminist suffrage movement in 1910s England, the film follows Maud Watts (Mulligan); a mother, wife and underpaid/overworked laundry worker. Abi Morgan's script is consistently strong and brews with empowering anger. Sarah Gavron's camera captures every spark of hope and trace of lost battle in her stellar cast's faces. Even when the film loses slight momentum halfway through (note: it regains it quickly), the cast keeps the film immensely interesting and watchable. This is a significant, important piece of work that should land Gavron, Morgan, the female cast members and many of its craftspeople (especially Jane Petrie's costumes and Alexandre Desplat's tension-filled score) multiple nominations come Oscar time. Present pre-screening were Gavron, Morgan, Streep and producers Faye Ward and Alison Owen (an all-female production, if it needs to be spelled out) to introduce the movie. Gavron said the film took almost six years to realize, and comes at a very timely moment, a sentiment she echoed at the film's intimate after-party at a small wine bar, where Streep and Abi Morgan were also in attendance.

Running from the Suffragette celebration back to the festival's largest venue Werner Herzog, I caught Andrew Haigh's stellar 45 Years, starring the inimitable Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a happily married couple of 45 years facing a secret from the past. The slow-burn play between the leads as they work their way through impeccably written dialogues and Haigh's smart script is a rare kind of adult treat we aren't often granted nowadays. Fans will find undertones of Haneke films—from Amour to Cache—in 45 Years, especially when it comes to the story's steady, ruthless progression from good-to-bad-to-worse, and its delirious undercurrent of anxiety.

Another female who put her stamp on day one was Brie Larson, with her enthusiastically reviewed (and tweeted about) film Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Along with the festival's hottest ticket—Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs—it is one of tomorrow's must-sees on my schedule. Hopefully, the rain will have stopped by then.

(Check out the full Telluride program guide here.)