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‘Strong Women’ at the Fore at London Film Festival

The 61st BFI London Film Festival, which takes place Oct. 4-15, is one of the few top movie events to be headed by a woman, but female-directed films only represent 25% of the features in the program.

That is far from where festival director Clare Stewart would like it to be, although it is up from 20% last year, and includes some stellar movies, such as Dee Rees’ story of two families in the Deep South, “Mudbound”; Lynne Ramsay revenge thriller “You Were Never Really Here”; and Clio Barnard’s “Dark River,” in which two siblings struggle to come to terms with their inheritance following the death of their father.

Several films reflect the theme of “strong women” behind and in front of the camera that Stewart has worked to emphasize in recent years. Examples of robust parts for women this year include Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes.”

“We have been quite vocal about strong roles for women and this film continues the march for us,” Stewart says. “It’s comedic in tone but with a rebellious spirit. The match is at the heart of the film but the story is very much that of Billie Jean King and her coming to terms with her sexuality, so it’s a very resonant film.”

Stewart underscores the “terrific” acting by other actresses in the festival lineup, such as Frances McDormand’s “blistering” performance in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Sally Hawkins’ “beautiful” execution in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.”

Annette Bening also stands out in Paul McGuigan’s “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” about the romance between former movie queen Gloria Grahame (who won a supporting actress Oscar for 1952’s “The Bad and the Beautiful”) and her much younger lover.

“[Bening] gives a well-rounded performance as a woman who, in a very spirited way, is holding onto both her profession and her sexuality, and eschews the fading movie star role,” Stewart says.

The festival’s selection of British films suggests local filmmaking has reached a high-water mark in terms of its breadth and quality. There are some very strong debut features from local directors, including Andy Serkis with fest opener “Breathe,” about a man paralyzed by polio who fights to be allowed to live life to the fullest, and stage director Dominic Cooke with “On Chesil Beach,” an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about a couple struggling to connect physically on their honeymoon.

Stewart notes that the lineup includes several movies by British directors that are set in the U.S., as they pursue creatively challenging story ideas in fresh areas. Examples include “You Were Never Really Here,” a portrayal of a hitman’s rage-fueled battle with abuse; “Three Billboards,” about a grieving mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter; and Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” about a neglected teen’s search for kindness in a bleak landscape.

Small-town America, which is depicted in the latter two movies, plays a central role in several of the festival’s films. Given the interest in the social forces that carried Donald Trump to the White House, these films are especially topical.

“In part what fuels [the mother’s rage in “Three Billboards”] is the small-mindedness and bigotry of the small town,” Stewart says. “The broader reverberations of contemporary America underpin in quite an intense way the kinetic tone of the movie.”

Another pic set in small-town America is “Mudbound,” about how the friendship of two World War II veterans ignites racial tensions. It’s one of many movies in the lineup that shine a light on social divisions in the U.S. in the past and today, including Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” about a 6-year-old girl and her young mother eking out an existence on the margins of society.

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