It’s not every week that the great Robert Redford ventures down to SE10 – unless he’s got a thing for the National Maritime Museum we don’t know about – but since expanding the Sundance Film Festival to Britain he’s established an annual indie haven 8000 miles east of its American home. You couldn’t squeeze more high-calibre independent cinema into this historic corner of London if Todd Solondz set one of his misanthropic masterpieces aboard the Cutty Sark. So where to start between April 25 and 28? And, more important, what to see? Here’s Empire’s guide to the likely highlights.
The man who named the festival after one of his most iconic films – no, not All The President’s Arthouse Films – is back to chaperone it through its second year on these shores. To add his substantial kudos to the four day jamboree and to prevent any onset of Difficult Second Festival Syndrome, Redford will be present at The 02 and helping introduce some of the two dozen or so dramas, docs, gigs, panel discussions and meet-and-greets. Not all of them, mind – man’s gotta sleep – but enough to thrill fans and have the media rushing around The 02 in the kind of frenzy not seen since Justin Bieber was here.
One of the surprise hits in a dramatic competition that was filled 50 per cent with female directors at this year's Sundance was In A World… by Lake Bell, who not only wrote and directed by also starred. Bell plays Carol, an aspiring actress who lives in the shadow of her father Sam (Fred Melamed), a legend in the world of voiceover artists. So when Carol hears that the famous words “In a world…” are being dusted off for a new blockbuster trailer, she starts to pitch for the job, coming up against all the big boys of the husky-toned voiceover world. Though it sounds like a one-joke spoof movie, In A World… is actually a sweet romantic comedy, featuring subtle turns from the likes of Demetri Martin and Rob Corddry and with a lot of self-deprecating humour from Bell, who portrays herself as a stalker with a tape recorder, chasing down unusual accents.
Music has always been a major part of the Sundance experience, and this superb documentary, which was given a standing ovation when it premiered in Park City, should strike a chord with music fans of all ages. Directed by Greg Camalier and produced by Stephen Badger, it tells the story of a small town that sits on the coast of the Mississippi in Alabama, and has produced some of the most amazing soul and rock music in American music history. Artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin have recorded there, as was the timeless classic When A Man Loves A Woman, performed by local boy Percy Sledge.
Jeff Nichols’ Huck Finn-like tale of life on the muddy Mississippi winds its way along the equally murky Thames to deliver an acclaimed indie drama to Sundance London crowds a couple of weeks before its full UK release. So what can viewers expect? Firstly, one of Matthew McConaughey’s best performances in an increasingly stellar career renaissance. Southern-fried drama is also on the menu, as is a return to Sundance from Nichols himself, whose Take Shelter pulled up stumps at Sundance, Utah in 2011. There will probably the odd nod to Mark Twain too. Trust us, it’s the catfish’s whiskers.
Shane ‘Primer’ Carruth is making a name for himself as a crafter of synapse-rearranging sci-fis. Primer was put together for a mere $7000 and his next, a romance wrapped up in a shapeshifting science-fiction, also weighs in at the lower-budget end of the moviemaking spectrum. If you want to know why Steven Soderbergh has described Carruth as “the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron”, you can catch his latest mysterious, indescribable big-screen odyssey Upstream Colour at the festival. A tale of pharmaceutical wrongdoing and the universality of life, but at the same time neither of those things, it’ll have you using words like “brilliant”, “trippy” and “grrfarnffrhh”. Well, we did say it was indescribable.
Fittingly, Sundance London is celebrating new talent in British filmmaking – lest Mr Redford be frog-marched out of Blighty by a suit from the Home Office. In Fear, a first stab at a feature-length thriller from established TV man Jeremy Lovering, made its bow at the Utah festival’s Park City At Midnight slot, which, auspiciously, has housed punchy flicks like Trollhunter and V/H/S in previous years. It’s repeating the trick for London audiences, who will share in an increasingly frayed night in the lives of Lucy (Beautiful Creature Alice Englert) and Tom (Iain De Caestecker) as they try to survive a terrifying rural labyrinth on the way back from a music festival.
The festival is celebrating more established limey talent, too, and there are few with more impressive résumés than Michael Winterbottom. He’s reunited with his old mucker from The Trip, 24 Hour Party People and A Cock And Bull Story, Steve Coogan, for a thoughtful take on Soho porn-and-property baron Paul Raymond. It’s a tried and tested partnership that’s less meta in this incarnation – expect fewer winks to the camera and a more straightforward biopic treatment of the polarising figure. Note to Sundance viewers: if you’ve more than five minutes in and you haven’t seen a pair of boobs, you’ve probably gone to History Of The Eagles Part One by mistake.
Lynn Shelton's last two films, Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, both premiered at Sundance, so it only seemed right that her latest should premiere at its London sibling. Both those films, the first hilarious, the second more bittersweet, dealt wonderfully with physical human relationships, but with this one she goes further, with Rosemarie DeWitt as a masseuse who develops a problem. Unlike the last two films, Shelton moves away from freeform improv into something more scripted, while promising a piece in which her actors “had permission to explore and mine the nuances of each scene”.