Welcome to Open Season, Screen’s new blog on the awards race, an on- the-ground account of the movies and performances in contention for this year’s awards, giving first reaction, word of mouth and plenty of opinion about the avalanche of films that will start falling onto our screens over the next four months.
Where better to begin than the Lido, the island off Venice where a cluster of this year’s big guns are receiving their world premieres during the 68th Venice International Film Festival. Only three days in and we have already seen some of the autumn’s most eagerly awaited titles.
I was not a huge fan of Madonna’s second film as a director W.E. – an ambitious but cliché-riddled affair blending the story of Wallis Simpson’s relationship with King Edward VIII with a story set in 1998 New York City about a young woman who obsesses about Mrs Simpson.
But Andrea Riseborough, the English actress who plays Mrs Simpson gives a remarkable performance and emerges regally from the enterprise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Riseborough, who has made her mark in supporting roles in British films like Made In Dagenham, Brighton Rock and Happy-Go-Lucky, makes the cut for year-end recognition in best actress categories.
Her performance as Wallis Simpson is witty and nuanced – she’s strong, a little hot-headed and uncompromising, but Riseborough imbues her with a fragile vulnerability that is deeply affecting. And she manages to pull off a tough scene when the dying Duke Of Windsor asks her to dance for him to Let’s Do the Twist. It could have been a disastrous moment of camp, but Riseborough remains mesmerizing.
Riseborough’s biggest claim to fame in the UK so far was in a 2008 BC TV film about Margaret Thatcher called Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk To Finchley for which she got a BAFTA nomination. Ironically if The Weinstein Company gets behind her in the best actress category for W.E., she would be up against Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, also for the Weinsteins.
W.E. will have a hard time overcoming the mixed-to-negative reviews it received out of Venice, but US critics might be warmer to Madonna than the unforgiving international critics corp. There are some strong scenes in the film, usually featuring Riseborough, which keep it watchable amid the more preposterous conceits. I also think the film will play well to female audiences. I am sure Harvey Weinstein will be formulating a smart campaign to build the film slowly after its Dec 9 opening in the US.
In nominations terms, I’m betting on recognition for the costume (Ariane Phillips) and production design (Martin Childs) as well as a flamboyantly romantic score by Abel Korzeniowski, the Polish composer who also scored Tom Ford’s A Single Man.
There’s some strong acting in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a compact and elegant film of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure which screened today in Venice (Friday). Set on the eve of World War I, the film follows the relationship between Carl Jung, one of his patients, the Russian Jewess – and initially troubled hysteric - Sabina Spielrein, and his mentor Sigmund Freud. As you’d expect from the pedigree, it’s a film of rich dialogue and great wit, although, this being Cronenberg, any overtly emotional vein lurks deep under the surface.
Michael Fassbender, who is also getting buzz for his performance in Steve McQueen’s Shame, which plays in Venice on Sunday, is exceedingly good as Jung, reflecting the psychological tumult that Ms Spielrein provokes with effective repression and gallantly remaining dressed even while he spanks her. Viggo Mortensen, who has less screen time than Fassbender, is just as charismatic as Freud, sporting a flawless English accent and a prosthetic nose. Knightley has a difficult Russian-accented role in Spielrein, moving from hysterical patient to professional doctor over the 99 minute running time. There’s not much vulnerability in her hard demeanour, even while she’s begging for punishment from Dr Jung, but the actress has the biggest character arc in the film and acquits herself well.
There’s also a tasty supporting role for Vincent Cassel, who stole scenes in Black Swan last year, and does so again here, as the lusty Otto Gross.
The film is almost slight in its dramatic impact. It doesn’t get you in the gut like A History Of Violence or Crash, rather it’s a cerebral piece that gets your brain ticking.
If I were to bet on awards heat, I’d go for the screenplay, great camerawork – largely of interiors - by Peter Suschitzky and possibly Knightley and Mortensen.
Also based on a play, and more obviously so than A Dangerous Method, Roman Polanski’s Carnage is an actors’ showcase set in one room. It’s a very amusing 79 minutes – I laughed loudest at the Kate Winslet vomit scene – but I am not sure if any one of the actors stands out enough as to generate awards heat. Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz are all highly entertaining and Polanski maximizes the humour of the situation to great effect.
A special mention must go to veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis who designed the New York City apartment set at a studio in Paris.
2011 was the year Ryan Gosling became a major film star. Not because he has been in any $200m blockbusters but because in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and now George Clooney’s The Ides Of March, he exudes the kind of timeless star quality which rarely comes along. Of course his matinee idol looks don’t hurt, but there’s something else, a charisma and intelligence which make him so engaging to watch. As the campaign press secretary who works for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s campaign manager and George Clooney’s Democratic presidential contender, Gosling gets the balance just right between innocence about to be lost and a worldliness beyond his character’s 30 years of age.
The Ides Of March is a smart film which should become an awards contender, certainly for Clooney’s accomplished direction and the screenplay he wrote with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon based on Willimon’s play Farragut North, but also for Alexandre Desplat’s urgent score and for Gosling and Hoffman’s performances.
Like Carnage and A Dangerous Method, it originated on the stage and Clooney has made The Ides Of March a compelling piece of cinema.
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