By Christian Hamaker
The Middleburg Film Festival just wrapped its third year in Northern Virginia horse country, but it’s already on strong footing. The only nearby competing festival, the troubled FilmFest DC, is held in the spring, while the Virginia Film Festival in November is closer on the calendar but a longer drive for those in the populous Northern Virginia region.
The Middleburg festival’s late October timing also puts it close to the peak of fall foliage season, enhancing the drive into town as well as the local sights.
However, it’s what’s on screen that counts most for a film festival, and the Middleburg festival—chaired by Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET—has, in its short history, consistently brought high-profile awards contenders (including Nebraska and The Butler last year), as well as a diverse slate of more obscure festival fare.
This year Johnson and her team, including Executive Director Susan Koch, programmed several Oscar-buzzed features—not only English-language titles like Truth and Spotlight, but official Oscar submissions in the Best Foreign Film race from several countries. Part of Johnson’s mission with the festival, she said, is to honor filmmakers who are too often overlooked—namely composers and cinematographers. So the festival this year honored composer Carter Burwell and cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
Whether you were itching to see Iceland’s official Oscar submission, Rams, Meg Ryan’s directorial debut (Ithaca, filmed in Virginia), or to honor the artists who have given a distinctive soundtrack to the work of the Coen Brothers or to the look Michael Mann’s films, the Middleburg Film Festival had something of interest.
Brief reviews of several films that screened over the festival’s four days—including a few with strong religious themes—follow.
The festival opened with two dramas that deal with belief and faith. Truth, a retelling of the Bush National Guard “scandal” late in the 2004 presidential campaign that turned out to be based on fake documents, is based on the memoir of Mary Mapes, the woman who produced the story and was subsequently fired by CBS, the network that aired it. The story also took down Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS Evening News, who is played in the film by Robert Redford.
It’s no surprise, considering its source material, that Truth tilts strongly in favor of Mapes, but it’s entirely unconvincing to anyone who, like a good journalist, approaches the story with a whiff of skepticism. Sadly, the film comes closest to the actual truth when it shows Mapes watching a broadcast of Rather acknowledging to viewers (on orders from his network bosses) the story’s problems. And how does director James Vanderbilt, who also wrote the screenplay, treat the actual truth as presented in the film? He has Mapes turn off the broadcast in order to silence most of the apology.
If Truth was the weakest of the films I saw in Middleburg, Spotlight was the finest. Showing journalism at its best and most effective, Spotlight recounts how a group of Boston Globe reporters broke the story of priests’ abuse of children. Tom McCarthy, who directed the affecting Win Win, has made a low-key, mature work about a dark chapter for the Catholic church. Without histrionics or any grandstanding speeches—OK, maybe one from Mark Ruffalo, but in the moment it’s well earned—McCarthy and a team of outstanding actors (Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery) deliver a sober film of low-key excellence.
Marriage was in the spotlight at the beginning of the festival’s second day. 45 Years, from director Andrew Haigh (Weekend), examines a married couple’s reaction to an unsettling revelation as they prepare to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. As the wife (Charlotte Rampling) contemplates the implications of her husband’s (Tom Courtenay) past, she grows increasingly troubled. Your reaction to the film may hinge, as mine did, on how reasonable you find the wife’s response to her husband’s newly revealed secret.
The day closed with Anomalisa, the latest offbeat puzzler from director Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Animated using puppets, Anomalisa looks unlike any other animated film I’ve seen. The story’s key event is a one-night stand in a hotel room, and while Anomalisa presents no pressing reasons for its main characters’ need for each other, it also doesn’t make the event out to be more meaningful than it is. The film might be about the acceptance of one’s limitations—or not. But it’s oddly compelling in ways that, I must admit, I haven’t been able to fully process. I only knew that I instantly wanted to watch the film again the minute it ended, and I did make a point of catching the tail end of Anomalisa’s second screening at the festival.
Religion rears its head in Kent Jones’ engaging Hitchcock/Truffaut, recounting a series of interviews between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. The interview transcripts are the basis of a key film-class text that shares its name with this documentary, and Jones brings the words to life through interviews with famous filmmakers who are well-versed in the book and in Hitchcock’s and Truffaut’s visual styles. For those of us familiar with the print interviews, clips from interview tapes open up the text in sometimes surprising ways. Indeed, had Jones given us more audio from the famous Q&A, the film likely would have been even better than it is.
Director Todd Haynes is best known for Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002), both of which star Julianne Moore. Openly gay, Haynes has dealt forthrightly with homosexuality in his earlier films, but none of those films has the star caliber of Carol. The title character, played by Cate Blanchett, is in the process of divorcing her husband (Kyle Chandler) when she strikes up a relationship a store clerk (Rooney Mara). But rather than play as a tragedy, Carol takes a steamy then strange turn into girl-with-a-gun territory before regaining its footing in time for a potent ending. A strong score from Carter Burwell undergirds the film, especially in the story’s early going.
Prior to a turgid Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the festival honored composer Carter Burwell with a live performance by the Loudon Symphony Orchestra of several of his best-known themes, including selections from Burwell’s newer scores for Carol and the Kray brothers tale, Legend. The successful tribute was at least as rewarding as even the best films on offer at Middleburg.
Just as the festival opened with a strong film about religion and religious institutions in Spotlight, it closed with a potent story of the impact of religious zeal on the lives of young women. Mustang, France’s official Oscar submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film, has a visual immediacy that matches well to its content. Five sisters in Turkey are seen frolicking with some boys, and the grandparents who are raising the girls decide to marry them off. The sisters’ desire to be free of cultural and religious strictures is best expressed through the youngest, Lale, who refuses to resign herself to an arranged marriage.
Mustang capped a festival that dealt forthrightly with religious themes while honoring contributions from artists who don’t receive the same level of attention that stars and directors do. Blessed with great weather and beautiful countryside, the Middleburg Film Festival is clearly matching the beauty of its location with high-caliber films from Hollywood and beyond.