54th BFI London Film Festival

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The darkness of the BFI screening rooms for the 54th London Film Festival last month might have seemed one place of shelter from austerity woes and the far-off tinkle of shattered glass.

With the opening night gala of Never Let Me Go, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of an idyllic boarding school childhood and the dark secrets it hides, and The King's Speech, a tale of George VI's (Colin Firth) awkward attempts to win public approval and lead the country into the Second World War, the festival marked revived interest in the heritage film. Such costume dramas, which understand British history through the sumptuous world of our social betters, had their heyday with our last experience of renewed Tory rule and recession in the early 1980s and can seem a nostalgic retreat from the strife of the present.

The closing night gala, Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, is a thrilling rendition of the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who cut off his own arm with a penknife after being pinned into an isolated ravine. Anton Corbijn's direction of George Clooney in The American is similarly tensely constructed with the precision of one of the custom-made rifles that Clooney's enigmatic hitman produces. While the film's in-flight magazine sense of class brings to mind Clooney's Nespresso ads, its gender politics indicate that the 1970s feel is less conscious retro than middle-aged throwback.

Yet social relevance was part of the entertainment not far beyond the somewhat cloistered heritage and thrills of the headline attractions. Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of 21 Grams and Babel, returns with Biutiful, in which Javier Bardem's portrayal of a family man hustler in the Barcelona underworld presents desperate criminality as simply one part of the intensively unstable competition inherent to capitalism.

British life outside of the halls of privilege was also evident. The Arbor combines fact and fiction to present the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, from her deprived youth to her writing of plays like Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and her death at 29. Neds is Scottish socialist Peter Mullan's depiction of life in 1970s Glasgow. Filmed in Wyndford Primary School, where parents recently staged an occupation against school closures, the richly humorous opening half hour shows how school drums violence into the narrowed horizons of Glasgow's "non-educated delinquents". Some poor plotting and characterisation mean that the film loses its critical edge as it develops in seriousness - the moments of violence remain thrilling, but it loses its bite.

Robinson in Ruins provided the festival's stand-out response to the economic crisis. The third in Patrick Keiller's trilogy (after London and Robinson in Space), it traces the development of bourgeois society in Britain from the English Revolution of the 1640s to the current crisis. A static camera takes in country fields, town high streets and bland motorways, while a voiceover narration undoes the picture of serenity with tales of rebellion, repression and financial instability. The central metaphor the film develops is of lichen - a combination of organisms which covers much of the earth. The film quietly suggests that humanity itself has such a natural collective impulse, offering a sense of hope for a popular solution to the crises of capitalism.

Ken Loach returns alongside scriptwriter Paul Laverty with Route Irish, a story of Fergus, a "private security agent" (ie mercenary, the second largest contingent of soldiers in Iraq after the Americans), and his search to discover what happened to a friend who was killed in Iraq. The film is a dissection of the privatisation of war and the official dishonesty that marks the occupation of Iraq.

Clear parallels to Iraq can be found in Amigo, set during the US occupation of the Philippines at the start of the last century. Within the wonderfully photographed island landscape, religion, democracy and attempts to win hearts and minds are clumsily employed to combat the anti-colonial insurgency before violence returns as the occupiers' default mode.

Other films that deserve attention are satirist Sabina Guzzanti's (somewhat formless) criticism of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's exploitation of the earthquake that devastated the town of L'Aquila for personal propaganda, and the benefit for private construction firms, in the documentary Draquila. Hands Up offers liberal opposition to French prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy's scapegoating of migrants in a fiction feature built around the touching and apparently improvised friendship between French and illegal immigrant children.

Waste Land documents Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's work with the men and women who search through the world's largest dumpsite in Rio de Janeiro to find materials to sell for recycling. They have often heartbreaking tales to tell, but the workers do not just mourn. Instead they use the exposure and money gained through their artwork to fund their ability to organise. The film's take on class centres on value: the value that the workers scrimp from what others throw out, the prices they fetch when these materials are made into artworks and, upliftingly, the shifting sense of personal value that the workers have of themselves.

Although its value as a weapon in the class war may be limited, the festival continues to offer rich pickings of illuminating cinematic experiences that have true worth.