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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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