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Strong Women, Harsh Environments, but a Mediocre Start to Berlinale.

By Brendan Power . February 7, 2015

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The 65th Berlinale kicked off early on Thursday and was accompanied by the usual pomp and fanfare people have come to expect from Europe’s biggest film festival.  Just before lunch the members of the jury were introduced via press conference, and seemed to be in a lighthearted but flippant mood.  Jury president Darren Aronofsky and other members such as Germany’s Daniel Brühle (below) repeatedly claimed they hadn’t yet checked to see which films were even in the contest.  After fielding the usual self-serving mundane questions from members of the international press; “How does it feel to be in Berlin?”, “What is your favourite thing about Berlinale?”, “I’m from country XYZ, can you say something about country XYZ?”, one or two slightly probing questions lead to more insightful answers.  Aronofsky explained that they were all coming into the festival with an open mind, that the “nationality of the film didn’t matter“, and that “the one that’s going to leave the biggest imprint on us will win“. He also explained that the jury would try “to remain objective within our own subjective reality” when judging the films.

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Thursday’s main event was the curtain-raising film Nobody Wants the Night, directed by Isabel Coixet, starring Juliette Binoche (see above), Rinku Kikuchi and Gabriel Byrne. The story (based on real life characters) centred around Josephine Peary, wife of Arctic explorer Robert Peary, who was hell bent on being the first to discover the North Pole.  The film introduces Peary as a prim and privileged Park Avenue style madame who is nevertheless determined to attempt to battle the subzero conditions and endless night of the polar winter in order to join her husband for his moment of glory.  Along the way we meet Bram, a gruff and hardy Irishman (played by Byrne, of course), who has little time for anyone or anything other than the purity of his arctic surroundings. He is ordered by Peary to lead her from their base camp at Elsemere in Greenland, across the perilous ice, and ultimately to her husband at the pole. Despite Bram’s warnings that such a journey during winter time would madness, he eventually agrees to lead her there. Naturally the journey is fraught with danger and the story takes a few twists and turns, but for the most part, the entire film subsequently takes place in a small wooden shack and centres on the relationship that develops between Peary and Alaka, the Inuit girl (played by Kikuchi, below) who harbours a devastating secret.

201510869_4The idea of a strong but privileged woman leaving behind civilization and “going native” is not such a novel one, despite Coixet’s assertions to the contrary. Although we get good performances by the supporting cast, Binoche overdoes it as the fish out of water, who she claims “starts the film as a peacock and ends it as a dog, on all fours“.  Breathtaking and beautiful shot polar icescapes notwithstanding, this was a mediocre opening to the festival, which upon reflection, left me almost as cold as the actors on screen.   6/10

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For Friday’s big premiere, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, we swap the freezing arctic for the sweltering heat of the Sahara, and are once again presented with a strong female lead of nobility, based on a real person, this time played by Nicole Kidman.  As expected, Kidman puts in a very strong performance as Gertrude Bell, a highly intelligent English writer, traveler, and political figure who explored and mapped much of what was the crumbling Ottoman empire around the time of WW1, also influencing British imperial policy in the region.  Once again the cinematography is outstanding and steals the show. Herzog, as ever doesn’t fail to present us with stunning shots of camels riding over dunes, Arabic architecture, and a collection of lush oases in otherwise barren landscapes.

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Where this effort from Herzog (his first to feature a female lead) falls short however is perhaps unsurprisingly, in the romance department.  Bell’s first love interest is a Mr Cadogan (James Franco) whom she meets on her first foreign adventure at the British embassy in Tehran.  Franco just doesn’t cut the mustard on this occasion. He plays his role as the smooth snooker trick-shot playing, card-trick yielding, ancient Arabic poetry connoisseur of Bell’s dreams in much the same way he would one of his lead characters from his litany of recent (and often decent) stoner movies.  He comes across as an actor trying too hard to play the Leo DiCaprio role and failing, for me to buy his performance, which is a shame as the rest of the film is really interesting, not least from a historical aspect.

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Damien Lewis (Band of Brothers, Homeland, etc) pops up yet again in a military role (typecast much?), and fares a little better as Lieutenant Charles Doughty-Wiley, aka love interest number two.  As Herzog himself stated at the subsequent press conference, speaking about the relationship between his on screen lovers – “Chemistry is everything, if it is not functioning in a film, you are lost”.  While it was Werner’s belief that in this instance they had pulled it off, this was actually the most glaring of the many kitsch and cheesy aspects which dragged his film down.  Shout out to Robert Pattison of Twilight fame, who pops up on one or two occasions as young, brash, gurning Laurence of Arabia for good comic effect. This was an epic which kept threatening to take off and blow us away, but it stalled on the ground, mired in the sands of its beautiful desert scenery. 6.5/10

 

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