If you want to see Johnny Depp with slicked back hair, dark glasses and a penchant for strangling women, or Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as a married young man turning into a woman with the help of his female lover, or even Tilda Swinton as a rock superstar who has lost her voice, it's all there at this year's Venice Festival. There may not be too many British Films around - most of them have gone to Toronto - but British actors seem to be two-a-penny. Not that Johnny Depp is British but playing his brother in the crime thriller Black Mass is none other than Benedict Cumberbatch.
Black Mass is the substantially true story of the notorious Boston gangster Joseph Bulger who became an FBI informant to mask his dirty deeds and was only apprehended years after he "retired" to Los Angeles. Scott Cooper's film gives Depp every chance to burnish an image dimmed recently by poor movies. Which is why it was a fundamentally good move for Depp to charge under his usual 20 million dollars to play the role. When asked how he went about playing an evil man, Depp replied that everyone has some evil in them and he was no exception. That's why the part came easily to him. It's an unexpected answer but possibly a good one. Cumberbatch as his senator brother hasn't a very grateful part, but at least provides a Boston accent that seems authentic. The film is uniformly well-acted but dully directed and much too long, which means comparisons to Scorsese's thrillers, or even the British-directed Donnie Brasco, are not possible. But at least it remains watchable throughout, thanks to Depp reincarnation as a star who can also act.
Eddie Redmayne took even more of a risk playing the young Danish painter Einar Wegener in The Danish Girl, than he successfully did as Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything. Wegener had a passionate relationship with Gerda Gottlieb, another artist, and was persuaded to don female clothes and pose as a model for his lover when the original girl failed to turn up. Slowly but surely, Gerda understood that her lover was a woman trapped in a man's body and bravely resolved to give him the help he needed. Wegener travelled to Germany in 1930 for the first of five operations for sex realignment. But the surgery was totally experimental at the time and Wegener died of transplant rejection. Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, could hardly be much better as the young couple, with Redmayne refusing to camp it up and Vikander supporting him as only a woman in love possibly could. As for Hopper's work as a director, he tells a good story as well as he did in The King's Speech. The film is good-looking throughout, decently written and clearly capable of moving audiences. It's one disadvantage is that it's a bit too smooth for its own good, so that there are times a sterner, harder approach might have paid more dividends.
Tilda Swinton is only one of the stars in Luca Guardagnino's A Bigger Splash. She is supported by Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson of Fifty Shades of Grey fame and Maathias Schoenaerts. Swinton and Schoenaerts are lovers on an island holiday who are suddenly joined by Fiennes as her boorish former lover and Johnson, who he maintains is his daughter. The long and the short of it is that the holiday is effectively ruined and ends in tragedy. Guadagnino is a proficient and stylish director who gives his cast room to breath in this tale of wrecked relationships. But, despite its virtues, which include a certain sliver of wit too, the film was roundly booed at its press show, possibly for not delving deeper than it did. The other reason, to which I subscribe, is that there isn't a single sympathetic character in the film. By the end of what seemed a very long two hours, I wanted to strangle the lot of them as useless appendages to the human race. And when they briefly meet up with a posse of migrants cast ashore on the island, it was very clear they were the more sympathetic characters.
One of the best, and most applauded, films in the competition so far was Alexander Sokurov's Francofonia. Using documentary footage and bits and pieces of semi-realist dramatics, the 64-year-old Russian director tells of the strange friendship between the Louvre director Jacques Jaujard and the Nazi officer sent to oversee the treasures and possibly relieve France of them. Count Wolff-Metternich and Jaujard contrived to save millions of pounds worth of artwork and either keep it at the Louvre itself or spirit it away to hiding places in chateaux. Metternich was afterwards reprimanded for his pains by the Nazi regime, but after the war finally received his due, as did the modest Jaujard.