The 75th Venice Festival has recently managed to trump Cannes where its opening films are concerned. Gravity and La La Land won Oscars and no doubt Damien Chazelle’s The First Man, the story of Armstrong’s moon landing, will get nominated too. Unfortunately, the film starts with two big disadvantages. The first is that we all know what happened so there is a lack of dramatic content. The second is Armstrong himself, described as “introspective” by Chazelle, which is a polite way of saying boring. And that is certainly the way Ryan Gosling plays him. Apart from the moment he bursts into tears when his first child dies, he maintains a straight face throughout, leaving Tina Foy as his wife to do the emoting (which she does very well). She is a woman who wants an ordinary life with her husband and kids, and he, of course, has to train and train until he is selected to lead the expedition which sees him touch down on the moon. That final episode is well handled by Chazelle. But the first half the film is almost as dull as Armstrong himself.
The two best films we have seen so far are Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Lanthimos, The Greek director of the eccentric The Lobster and the less eccentric The Killing of a Sacred Deer has chosen the gout-stricken British monarch Queen Anne and her influential confidante and lover as his subject matter, with the Duchess of Marlborough making up a trio of early 18th century women who dominated the court at the time.
The film is superbly mounted, mostly at Hatfield and brilliantly dressed too. But if looks could kill, it’s the acting which ought to be remembered. Olivia Colman is wonderful as the distressed old Queen whose word is law even as Parliament is flexing its muscles more than before, while Emma Stone has never been better as her helpmeet. There remains another fine performance from Rachel Weisz as the ambitious Duchess, introduced to the court as a servant, pushed into a brothel but somehow making herby up to or near the top of the pecking order.
This is a period film with a distinct difference, equipt with a fine script and a wonderfully cynical view of English heritage. My historian wife, who actually works within this period, says it is remarkably accurate not just to the looks of the whole thing but also to the psychological implications of a true story. It makes Game of Thrones seem as ludicrous as it actually is, however, entertaining. The Favourite is something entirely different and Lanthimos’ best film so far.
Cuaron’s Roma looks at first like a smaller enterprise than his other films. But in the end this summation of his early life in the Mexico City suburb of Roma is extremely well-judged since its realist view of things does not preclude a real sense of emotion and feeling, so that what athirst sees a very simple story of poverty and aspiration becomes full of the kind of detail we don’t often get in this sort of thing. It was appreciated not just by the critics but by the public as well and is almost certain to get a major prize.
Whether we need another A Star is Born is questionable. But if it stars Lady Gaga in all her glory it is at least arguable that perhaps we do. Actually, Bradley Cooper’s version went down surprisingly well, as did Lady Gaga herself. She is no Judy Garland and Mr Cooper who plays the James Mason part as well as directs is certainly not of Mason’s standard. But the pair do very creditably as the young singer picked up by the alcoholic country rock star and turned into a star herself before the drink and jealousy get to him. It’s a version of the story that is essentially full of Hollywood cliche. But played with some conviction it lets its audience wallow in a period when this sort of thing was regular fodder. Lady G’s study in vulnerability is cleverly emphasised by the director who apparently scrubbed all the make-up off her face for the first scenes between the two leads. Okay, the songs aren’t wonderful but at least Lady G and Mr Cooper sing them with conviction, and those who love this sort of thing will probably shed tears at the right moments. Lady G is a modestly good actress who doesn’t try to hog the limelight, and Cooper has to be commended for his shrewd work as director as well as co-star. Unless I’m well off-beam, the film will be a success and, compared to some modern Hollywood biggies, deserves it.
The problem with Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is that, though the acting is more than adequate, there are no outstanding performances to gloat over. It is not that kind of movie, being a thoroughly researched document about a troubling aspect of British history that too few really know about. The passages leading up to the massacre itself (very well done) are pretty talkie and Leigh does not interfere with them as director. He often shoots them straight on without fuss and without trying to add much to them. The result is straightforward but a little academic, as if Leigh is anxious to let us know the awful truth without burnishing it as a film-maker. It’s a long film, like so many in this festival. But until the final scenes, it doesn’t hold the attention nearly as tightly as many of this director’s other films. Peterloo is an amazing story that deserves to be told. But we needed a little more dramatic conviction before the massacre is thrust upon us.
Another much-anticipated film was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is an affectionate summation of what the film-makers love about a genre which seldom hits the big screen today. It comprises half a dozen separate stories, linked by well-known songs and performed by some well-known Western character actors. The result is a mixed bag, some excellent and some indifferent and, once again, the film is too long for its own good and could easily be edited down a bit. You could say that for a great many movies at this year’s Festival which displayed a number of films worth 100 minutes or so but spread out beyond two hours. Even so, the programme proved that Venice, in its 75th year, is still as relevant as Cannes. And some would say more so this year. The fact that half dozen Netflix movies, rejected by Cannes, were shown here made a large difference. I think Venice was right personally but the French still have a point.