From tales of friendship to inspiring documentaries: the best female-led films at the London Film Festival

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Harriet Hall
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The 59th BFI London Film Festival kicked-off on today and, this year, organisers have officially dubbed it “the year of the strong woman.”

Increasingly, actors have been blowing the whistle on the deep-rooted sexism within the film industry, and the BFI is keen to begin making moves to change this, and transform film a more female-positive medium.

The festival, which runs from Wednesday 7 October until Sunday 18 October, will be showing a range of films with female narratives and strong female roles. Approximately 20% of the festival’s schedule comes from female directors which -although still a startlingly low percentage - is far higher than other film festivals.

We’ve selected some of the films that we think best demonstrate brilliant female roles:


Leading the way for the year of the strong woman as the opening night film is Suffragette. The film tells the compelling story of the passionate and violent fight for the female vote in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain. Focusing around the story of fictional character, Maud (Carey Mulligan) – a laundry worker who is seduced by the passion of the suffragettes – the film also includes cameos from historical icons including suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter), and Emily Davison (Natalie Press), who infamously threw herself in front of the King’s horse on 4 June 1913, suffering fatal injuries.

As well as being the first and only film to tell the story of the female foot soldiers of this early feminist movement: the lengths to which they were willing to go to secure equality, and the struggles they faced on the way – the film is also written (Abi Morgan), directed (Sarah Gavron) and produced (Faye Ward and Alison Owen) by women, making it a real must-see. 

Showing at the Odeon Leicester Square on Wednesday 7 October at the LFF / In cinemas nationwide on Monday 12 October. 

He Named Me Malala

Directed by Oscar-winning documentarist, Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman), and filmed over an 18-month-period, He Named me Malala is an intimate look inside the quotidian life of the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and feminist activist, Malala Yousafzai. The film tells the story of how Malala’s father, Ziauddin named his daughter Malala, in honour of the legendary Pashtun folk heroine, Malalai of Maiwand.

As well as telling Malala’s story of growing up in Pakistan’s Swat Valley during Taliban reign, how she began anonymously blogging for the BBC and was subsequently shot by a Talib on her school bus, aged only 15, the film documents Malala’s personal life – her relationship with her father father Ziauddin, her mother Toor Pekai and brothers Khushal and Atal. Malal is exposed not only as an extraordinarily brave young woman, but as an ordinary girl who simply refuses to be silenced.

We learn of her story through animated sequences, hand-held camera snap-shots and interviews and Malala is revealed to be not only an intelligent leader, but also a sharp young woman with a devilish sense of humour. “What inspires me is a father who saw in his daughter someone who could do anything and who believed in her,” says Guggenheim. “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”

In cinemas nationwide 6 November. 


Based on Patricia Highsmith’s once scandalous novel, The Price of Salt, and adapted for screen by Emmy nominated Phyllis Nagy, CAROL has been called a “deeply romantic, emotionally honest love story” by BFI LFF director, Clare Stewart. The 1950s set film (hello, beautiful costumes) tells the story of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young woman in her 20s dreaming away her days whilst working in a New York department store. When Therese meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), a woman trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience, the two bond over their undesirable situations.

Todd Haynes’ film follows their relationship as their connection deepens, becoming an emotionally honest love story about two women who defy the strict conformities of mid-century America. Elizabeth Karlsen, producer, says: “CAROL is a beautiful romance with two powerful women at its heart and we are truly honoured that UK audiences will have the chance to see such a female-driven film at one of the world's most prestigious festivals.”

Uk premiere Wednesday 14 October at the Odeon Leicester Square / In cinemas nationwide on 27 November


Saoirse Ronan plays the powerfully independent Eilis in Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s best-selling novel. Directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn tells the story of a young woman in 1950s Ireland who leaves the safety of her family behind in her small post-war town and embarks on a solo journey to New York, in a bid to forge a new life for herself. The film explores the difficulties Eilis faces on her journey and how she adapts to her new life, even meeting a young plumber, Tony, with whom she falls in love.

A family tragedy calls her back to Ireland, where Eilis is forced to choose between two men and two countries- her independence and her familial duty. A film with which every young woman will no doubt find some connection. 

In cinemas nationwide, 6 November

Much Loved

Set in modern day Marrakech, Much Loved tells the no-holds-barred story of four sex workers - Noha, Randa, Soukaina, and Hlima – and the prostitution scene in Morocco. The film has been banned in Morocco for its “contempt for moral values and the Moroccan woman”, and sparked debate after some scenes were leaked on the internet. The lead actress, Loubna Abidar, who plays foul-mouthed and confident Noha, has since received death threats and been condemned by religious authorities for the role. Director, Nabil Ayouch created the film to expose the issue of exploitation faced by Moroccan sex workers by pimps and corrupt police.

The film is intended to show how the women avoid being sucked into darkness by living their lives to the full and keeping their spirits up. Ayouch says: “For some of these women, God protects them; for others, it’s their innocence or their strength which gets them through. But there are always the same fears, the same wounds. I wanted to recount this reality, far removed from the myths. Recounting means showing. Everything, without restraint, without compromise or false modesty.”

Showing at the LLF Tuesday 13 and Friday 16 October.

Queen of Earth

Starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterson, Queen of Earth is a dark psychological thriller that tells the unfortunate but all too familiar story of the breakdown of close female friendships. As Catherine (Moss) attempts to get over a particularly dark period of her life - following the suicide of her father and a break-up with her boyfriend – she seeks recuperation and heads to her best friend Virginia’s (Waterson) lake house to escape. The film takes an intimate look at the intensity and power dynamics behind female friendships and the damaging psychological effects of their breakdown, amidst each woman’s misery and a resultant psychological breakdown. 

Showing at the LFF Sunday 11 and Tuesday 13 October.


Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlisted-novel and bestseller of the same name and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, ROOM tells the story of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) who kidnapped and held captive in a garden shed by a man named ‘Old Nick.’ Seven years on, the film looks at the life of Joy and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) inside the ‘room’ where they live, desperate to escape.

The book told the story from the point of view of the protagonist, five-year-old Jack, in a similarly endearing manner to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but is developed into a film to muse upon the meaning of life and the deep bond of parenthood. A hugely emotional story that centres around a fascinating and complex female character.

Showing at the LFF Sunday 11, Monday 12, Tuesday 13 October / In cinemas nationwide 15 January 2016.


Directed by Sara Blecher, Ayanda is the coming of age story of 21-year old afro hipster, Ayanda (Fulu Mugovhani) set in Yeoville, Johannesburg. After her father’s death, Ayanda is desperate to save his motor repair business that faces closure. In true Flashdance style (but without the dancing), Ayanda dons a set of overalls and learns the tricks of the mechanical trade, facing plenty of gender stereotypes as she goes. It looks to be funny, emotional and empowering – all wrapped into one. 

The London Film Festival takes place from the 7-18 October. You can book your tickets online here or by phone at 020 7928 3232 between 10:00 – 20:30 or in person at the BFI Southbank Office: 11:00 – 20:30

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Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.