Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a newly-married couple who find themselves homeless in "Love Is Strange".
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Unknown pleasures at the Berlinale, the young upstart of the film festival world

Ryan Gilbey reports from the Berlin Film Festival 2014, where a viscous thriller about a soldier separated from his unit in 1970s Belfast rubs shoulders with a tender comic-drama starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

This is Part 1 of Ryan Gilbey’s report from the Berlin Film Festival – Click here to read Part 2.

As the youngest in the triumvirate of European film festivals, the Berlinale, which has been running since 1951, is easily overshadowed by its elder siblings, Venice and Cannes. We all know how difficult it can be for stragglers to make their mark when the trailblazers have achieved so much. (I’m the eldest of three children. Why do you ask?) So it was a coup for the festival to secure as its opening film the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s candy-coloured caper The Grand Budapest Hotel, which has a delicious turn from Ralph Fiennes as a dandyish concierge embroiled in wartime intrigue. And the first half of Lars von Trier’s sexually explicit odyssey Nymphomaniac was shown in a slightly extended director’s cut – another premiere.

Having seen the two-part, four-hour-plus theatrical version (which I’ll be reviewing next week), I skipped this. Colleagues could be heard puzzling over what precisely had been added. The consensus seemed to be that there was a touch more chat and a few more of what Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein calls Schwanzstückers.

Talking of Schwanzstückers, one of the film’s stars, the volatile 27-year-old Shia LaBeouf, stopped by at the Nymphomaniac press conference briefly to repeat Eric Cantona’s gnomic quote about seagulls and sardines. He also appeared on the red carpet outside the Berlinale Palast with his face obscured by a paper bag on which was written the words: “I am not famous any more.” I was reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo being driven through the streets proclaiming through a loudhailer: “I vant to be alone.”

Celebrity meltdowns aside, Berlin does not always sport the most tantalising line-up. “We complain about Cannes because it always has the same old names,” a friend observed, “then we moan about Berlin because it never has anyone we’ve heard of.” The upside is that any pleasures are all the richer for being unheralded. Remember, the likes of Gloria and A Separation made their initial splashes here.

Five days in and nothing yet has been quite that revelatory. I enjoyed La Marche à suivre, a documentary about a provincial Canadian school. The film places equal emphasis on discord and fun, dropping in on tense teacher-student powwows but also incorporating stylishly shot sequences of teenagers at play. Think of it as Être et avoir: the High School Years.

The tender comedy-drama Love Is Strange features heartfelt performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a Manhattan couple who get hitched almost 40 years into their relationship, only to find themselves forced to lodge separately after they become unexpectedly homeless. While the lead actors are together, the film feels alive and vital; these characters deserve their own miniseries or chat show. Their rejuvenating reunion in a bar near the end of the movie is bliss for them and us alike.

The most encouraging hit of the festival so far is ’71, which played in the main competition. Yann Demange (whose TV credits include Top Boy and Criminal Justice) directs this sinewy thriller about Gary (Jack O’Connell), a squaddie separated from his unit in 1971 Belfast. The plot could be engraved on the nose of a bullet – hunted by foes and supposed friends alike, Gary must stay alive – but the film is lucid about the tribal complexities of the Troubles. The pace is expertly calibrated, too. There is a terrifying riot sequence and a brilliant breather in which Gary is “adopted” by a 12-year-old Protestant urchin who’s cock-a-hoop at finding a soldier. Genre pictures rarely bag festival prizes but at the time of writing, ’71 is the most complete and well-crafted film I’ve seen here.

Also gripping is History of Fear, Benjamin Naishtat’s elliptical portrait of Argentinean society in which the poor are feral and oppressed, the wealthy contemptuous and paranoid. A string of disorienting vignettes and tableaux amplify the sense of dread, Michael Haneke-style. Alarms howl, children vanish, military choppers loom sinisterly over a shanty town grid. The tension was weakened slightly by the suspicion that the scenes could have been arranged in any old order to little detrimental effect.

Thrillers in general are making a good showing. Lee Yong-seung’s Ship Bun (“Ten Minutes”) concerns a hard-working intern who goes from rising star to scapegoat, outcast and bullying victim after he is passed over for a staff position. Less convincing but similarly occupied with claustrophobic economic pressures is Things People Do, in which Wes Bentley (the kid from American Beauty with the cliff-ledge brow) becomes a moralistic, Robin Hood-style criminal. The New Mexico locations remind you that, while it’s not exactly bad, it isn’t Breaking Bad, either. One of the stars of that series, Aaron Paul, turns up in an inept adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down. He plays one of a quartet of wacky misfits (Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collette and Imogen Poots are the others) who arrive coincidentally on the same rooftop to commit suicide. Friendships are forged, tears shed. My body ached by the end. Not through laughing or crying but because I was rigid from cringing at each ingratiatingly zany line, flat joke and misjudged appeal to our sympathies.

Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer of Drive, makes his directorial debut with a fat-free film adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Two Faces of January, about a US tour guide (Oscar Isaac minus his Inside Llewyn Davis beard) working in 1960s Athens. There, he is drawn to a con man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst). It’s as elegant and creepy as a Highsmith adaptation should be. And all those sun-dappled ruins and linen suits were bound to have a replenishing effect on those of us barricaded behind scarves and bobble hats around the concrete plains of Potsdamer Platz.
 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.