How perfect a choice was George Clooney’s The Ides of March to open the Venice Film Festival today? Let us count the ways.
Firstly, this political thriller fits Venice like a silk glove. It’s smart, sophisticated and politically astute, written with a shrewd intelligence and featuring stars (Clooney himself, Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei) who offer Hollywood glamour while engaging in work that’s more than a cut above routine Hollywood product. The Ides of March also offers two terrific supporting performances from Grade-A character actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giammatti), doing the kind of work that makes European critics and audiences sit up and take notice.
The Clooney factor cannot be discounted here. He truly is the poster boy for the Venice Festival, and it’s a two way love affair. Clooney has a weakness for all things Italian: he has a home on the shores of Lake Como, not so far away, and finds it convenient to drop into Venice at the end of a summer and steal the show. (He has been here in recent years promoting Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton and Burn After Reading.)
The Ides of March, which he directs, co-writes, plays second lead and produces, looks like it may well feature in the coming awards season – which coincides with the way Venice likes to be regarded. The festival sees itself as the go-to venue for world premieres of films that end up being garlanded with prizes and honours. And if a couple of shaky schedules in recent years have caused observers to question that perception, the line-up for this 68th festival is as impressive as any in years.
It boasts 100 world premieres, and two of the most high-profile of these will be screened tomorrow: Roman Polanski’s chamber piece Carnage, about a quartet of warring parents, adapted from Yasmina Reza’s savagely funny stage play; and W.E., the much-anticipated film directed by Madonna, in which a contemporary Manhattan woman in an unhappy marriage looks back to the controversial but apparently fairy-tale romance between King Edward VIII and American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Those two films alone should make for memorable red carpet processions: Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly for Carnage, with Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough and of course, Madonna herself for W.E.. (Those who find it hard to keep up with the minutiae of individual countries’ extradition treaties with the U.S. should know that Mr. Polanski is unlikely to travel.)
Still, this is no front-loaded festival. Each successive morning brings a promising work from a major film-maker. David Cronenberg ventures into new territory with A Dangerous Method, starring Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley. It concerns a triangular relationship set at the time of the birth of psychoanalysis, with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at odds over the destiny of a neurotic young Russian patient.
British director Steve McQueen follows his widely-acclaimed debut Hunger with Shame, a story of a New York man (Fassbender again) with a sex addiction – and the impact on his life when his sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him.
The strong British influence in Venice’s competition films is confirmed by two more titles on successive days : a re-working of John le Carre’s complex espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with a classy posse of Brit thesps – Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy among them; and Andrea Arnold’s take on Emily Bronte’s classic Wuthering Heights (a radically different one, allegedly) with lesser-known talent.
Add to this list new work from Steven Soderbergh, Contagion (about a deadly virus) the first film from Whit Stillman in 13 years (Damsels in Distress, which closes the festival) and entries from non-Anglophone directors Alexander Sokurov, Marjane Satrapi and Yorgos Lanthimos, and you get some idea of Venice’s strength this year.
Still, The Ides of March itself will take some beating. Clooney is firmly in the politically committed mood that spawned Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck The new film is a political thriller, with Clooney as Mike Morris, a liberal governor running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet the pivotal role is that of his press secretary Stephen Meyers, played with deadpan, icy conviction by Ryan Gosling. Clever, ambitious and idealistic, he is devoted to the governor. Yet we know his loyalties will be tested, and the prospect of betrayal will loom. The film isn’t called The Ides of March for nothing.
It explores themes of loyalty, ambition, and the gap between public ideals and private fallibility, engaging the brain while remaining constantly entertaining. The writing demonstrates real insider knowledge about the nuts and blots of political campaigns. Yet it’s worn lightly. Nothing here is more forbidding than any episode of The West Wing.
Every performance is finely judged. Hoffman and Giamatti have a ball as rival campaign managers. Marisa Tomei is terrific as a hard-boiled New York Times reporter, while Evan Rachel Wood, who gains in stature with every role, excels as a bright young intern whose ambitions land her in deep trouble. As one might expect, Clooney brings all his natural, relaxed charm to the character of an assured, charismatic politician.
Venice has had its share of problems recently. Work on the new Palazzo del Cinema ground to a halt after asbestos was discovered in its foundations. With a shortage of funds available, some renovation plans may need to be modified. But the current line/up augurs well for its future.