London Film Festival welcomes audiences back to the movies

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Jane Campion, from left, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst pose for photographers on the red carpet of the film 'The Power Of The Dog' at the 78th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Thursday, Sep, 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

LONDON – Movies from 77 countries will screen at the 2021 London Film Festival, as Britain’s leading cinema showcase welcomes mass audiences back to movie theaters after a pandemic-disrupted year.

The festival program, announced Tuesday, includes 158 features, down from 225 during its last pre-pandemic edition in 2019. The 2020 festival was a curtailed collection of 58 films, most screened online.

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This year, mask-wearing, full-capacity audiences will be able to attend gala screenings at London’s riverside Southbank Centre, with many of the premieres screened simultaneously at movie theaters across the U.K.

About 37% of the features are directed by women — not yet parity, but up from a quarter four years ago and “heading in the right direction,” festival director Tricia Tuttle said.

The festival opens Oct. 6 with the world premiere of “The Harder They Fall” — a Western from British director Jeymes Samuel with a Black-led cast — and closes Oct. 17 with the European premiere of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Shakespeare’s murderous Scottish royals.

The lineup includes 21 world premieres alongside prize-winners and headline-grabbers from the Cannes and Venice film festivals, including Jane Campion’s Montana-set Western “The Power of the Dog” and Edgar Wright’s swinging-60s horror romp “Last Night in Soho,” both of which premiered in Venice this month.

Also on the schedule are French director Julia Ducournau’s techno-sexual thriller “Titane” — winner of Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or — Paul Verhoeven’s lesbian nun drama “Benedetta” and Wes Anderson’s whimsical “The French Dispatch,” both of which also premiered at the French Riviera festival.

The London festival will also feature Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Elena Ferrante adaptation “The Lost Daughter”; Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” which stars Will Smith as the father of Venus and Serena Williams; Kenneth Branagh’s homage to his home town, “Belfast”; Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” and Todd Haynes’ music documentary “The Velvet Underground.”

Another highlight is Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer” — a film whose first publicity shot of Kristin Stewart as Princess Diana was enough to set off a frenzy of anticipation.

“I don’t think there’s a film fan alive who doesn’t want to see this film after that still was released,” Tuttle said.

Embracing television as well as cinema, the festival is also screening the first two episodes of the third series of media-dynasty drama “Succession.”

Festival organizers are still unsure how the coronavirus pandemic will affect plans for red-carpet premieres and parties. Four-fifths of British adults are fully vaccinated, and there are few restrictions on social life. But infections remain high, and are expected to climb further now that children are back at school.

Tuttle says a few films in the lineup deal explicitly with the pandemic, including Matthew Heineman’s documentary “The First Wave” and “7 Days,” a coronavirus romcom about a couple locked down together after a disastrous first date.

“We were wary of going too heavily into the pandemic,” Tuttle said. “We’ve just chosen films that charmed us or felt too urgent not to include in the program.”