It’s fitting, I suppose, that for my first-ever blog I should write about what was my highlight of the recent BFI London Film Festival – fitting not so much because of my professional involvement with the Festival, but because the highlight in question featured a combination of film and music, two of the enduring passions of my life. But while there were, of course, many new movies which I enjoyed at the Festival, my favourites were not especially notable for their use of music. Moreover, unlike most people, I was not completely blown away by La La Land. But that discussion, perhaps, is for another time.
No, my highlight was the Archive Gala, an annual event at which a new restoration by the BFI of one of the silent titles in its massive archive is presented complete with live performance of a new, specially commissioned musical score. This year’s film was The Informer, a 1929 adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel about love, loyalty, jealously and betrayal taking their toll on a number of revolutionaries in Dublin in 1922. It’s one of the best British films of the period – and considerably better than John Ford’s better known 1935 film starring Victor McLaglen – though to be fair its main two stars were Hungarian (Lya de Putti) and Swedish (Lars Hanson), the director (Arthur Robison) was a German best known for the expressionist classic Warning Shadows (1922), and its two cinematographers were also German. These contributors may explain the film’s impressive chiaroscuro camerawork; in many respects it may be seen as a kind of proto-noir, complete with characters feeling isolated and at risk, not really understanding what is happening around them in a world where nobody is quite as he or she seems.
So The Informer was a wise choice for the BFI National Archive to present, and the meticulous restoration was impressive to behold. But what, for me, made the screening so impressive was the music that accompanied the film, both in terms of composition and performance. It was written by the formidable violist Garth Knox, formerly of the Arditti Quartet and Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain and now a successful leader in his own right following a number of releases on ECM. He’d composed for a sextet, which allowed for richly coloured and properly dramatic music: viola and viola d’amore, bass, flute and piccolo, Uillean pipes, a whole range of percussion, and accordion, the last played by Frode Haltli, another ECM artist who is as extraordinarily versatile, expert and inventive a performer on his instrument as Knox is on his.
All the band were top-notch, however, and they needed to be, given the ambitions, inventiveness and subtle details of Knox’s score. This really was superior to most of the music we hear composed for silent movies, unafraid to venture beyond tonality, rhythmically complex, and packed with moments of sheer brilliance – perhaps most memorably a wonderfully witty, dramatically effective and psychologically expressive deployment of ‘Oh Danny Boy’, and a very powerful finale bringing together musics traditional and modern, secular and religious.
Unsurprisingly, both film and music went down extremely well with the LFF audience. They had seen and heard something very special: world-class musicians performing extremely imaginative music in accompaniment to an excellent restoration of a fine British film that deserves to be better known that it has been. There are hopes that there will be further screenings with Knox’s sextet playing live. And if you don’t manage to get to one of those, don’t despair. The film – complete with the new soundtrack – is scheduled for release on DVD. Watch this space! And in the meantime you can click here to hear something by Garth Knox, and here to hear something played by Frode Haltli.