Challenging Convention

Led by Annette Bening, the jury at the 74th Venice Film Festival tapped into the popular vote when it came to awarding its main prize. Giving Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water the Golden Lion was hardly a compromise; audiences and critics were unanimously in admiration of this Cold War-set romantic fantasy about a mute Baltimore cleaner (Sally Hawkins) who falls for an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) incarcerated in the top secret government facility where she works. Del Toro’s first major prize, it showed genuine recognition for genre filmmaking – normally sidelined at film festivals – albeit for a movie that mixes love, politics and cinema into an intoxicating brew.

Another award that chimed with the critical consensus was that of Best Screenplay, going to Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The story of a mother (Frances McDormand) driven to demand justice after the rape and murder of her daughter, it’s a superbly written script, full of pearls that the cast – including Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson – deliver with relish. Creating characters that frequently challenge cinematic conventions, it’s an impressive work that disturbs and delights in equal measure.

While McDormand looked to be a good shout for Best Actress, that award went to English veteran Charlotte Rampling for Hannah, a film that played on the final Friday. Directed by Andrea Pallaoro, who co-wrote the script with Orlando Tirado, the film is a disquieting French-language character study about a woman coping (or not) with her husband’s imprisonment for what seem to be child sex abuse offences. Only minimal information – somewhat frustratingly – is offered up by Pallaoro, who prefers to train his camera on a superb Rampling as her life quietly implodes.

Also playing late in the festival was Australian director Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, which claimed the Special Jury prize. Competently dealing with issues of racism and prejudice between whites and indigenous Australians, it’s a potent Outback-set western that packs just as much buckshot as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005) managed. Mixing seasoned stars (Bryan Brown, Sam Neill) with non-professional newcomers (Hamilton Morris), Thornton has evidently pushed on from his 2009 debut Samson and Delilah, creating a fascinating sweat-drenched snapshot of a bygone era that feels utterly relevant to today.

A word also for Charlie Plummer, who took the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress for his lead role in Andrew Haigh’s Lean On Pete. The British director’s first American film, following Weekend and 45 Years, it’s a heart-wrenching tale of teenage loneliness as Plummer’s character Charley hotfoots it from his Portland home across the Great American Landscape with only a horse for company. Inspired on some level by Ken Loach’s Kes, it’s an emotionally devastating journey but one that highlights just what a talent Plummer is. Like so many of the awards at this year’s Venice, his was well deserved.

James Mottram

For more information about VFF:

1. Still from THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) Official Trailer HD, Guillermo del Toro.