Berlin Diary: Love across continents, and over time

Posted on February 7, 2015


Herzog disappoints. Plus, an excellent character study about a long-married couple.

The next time we begin to accuse an Indian filmmaker of choosing stars who command press attention rather than actors who’d actually vanish into the part, we should remember that well-regarded foreign filmmakers do this all the time, sometimes to the detriment of their films. Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night features Juliette Binoche wielding a wavering accent as the Maryland-born Josephine Peary. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, which I caught on the second day of the festival, has James Franco as the least credible Brit since Robert Redford in Out of Africa. And who do you think is cast as TE Lawrence, a character that’s doomed to invite unfavourable Peter O’Toole comparisons? Robert Pattinson, from the Twilight movies. The minute he made an appearance in Arab headgear, the audience burst out laughing. O’Toole, blue eyes blazing, was all man – passionate, intelligent, and more than a little nuts. Pattinson looks like a kid who’s dressed up for Halloween. It’s a trick, no treat.

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The film – and I quote the festival brochure, which weighs as much as a telephone directory – “tells the story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) who, as historian, novelist and member of the British secret service, played a decisive role around 1920 in setting the course for the new political order in the Middle East.” What a life. What a story. And what opportunities to draw parallels to the present-day strife in the region. But Queen of the Desert, alas, is no Lawrence of Arabia. What it really wants to be is The English Patient, the political machinations a mere backdrop for a series of sand-swept romantic misadventures.

This approach poses two problems. One, The English Patient has already been made, and very well at that. Two, Herzog doesn’t exactly have the temperament for this kind of aching, star-crossed romance. The film is frustratingly dull and conventional. Nicole Kidman tries hard – she always seems to be trying hard, miscast as she is in most of her movies – but it’s no surprise that the character eludes her. Heck, the character eludes the screenplay. Going by this version, Bell was someone who magically got her way by making powerful men fall for her. Surely it can’t have been this easy.

Herzog’s idea of romance is to have the Franco character halve an ancient Greek coin, with Alexander’s head on it. He keeps one part, and the other he gives to Bell. Two halves of the same soul – or some such thing. Viewers are bound to come away with renewed respect for the romantic tracks in more mainstream movies. It’s not easy. And while we scoff at filmmakers who shoehorn in gratuitous sex scenes with an eye on the box office, Herzog invites us to watch Bell bathe in a bathtub in the desert, with camels behind her, with the sun behind the camels. If they begin to hand out Oscars for unintentional comedy, this scene is a lock.

Fortunately, the film that followed did not disappoint. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years was flat-out wonderful, and the first film that looked like it had any business belonging in such a major festival. Haigh likes to take on melodramatic material, but he directs in a minor key. We saw this in his earlier film Weekend, which depicted the relationship between two men over the course of a couple of days. This time, we follow a married couple (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) over the week leading up to their 45th anniversary celebration. Naturally, there’s a big, dark secret from the past that surfaces as if on cue – otherwise, there’d be no melodrama. But under Haigh’s hand, there are less cries, more whispers.

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We seem to be in some sort of golden age for films about older couples, and 45 Years easily joins the ranks of Michael Haneke’s Amour and Mike Leigh’s Another Year. What if your name is Kate, and what if you begin to wonder if that name had something to do with the reason your husband married you, given that his earlier girlfriend was named… Katya? How do you fight a memory? Few actresses are capable of being as possessed by doubt as Rampling is here, and Courtenay is equally marvellous as a man who loves his wife but probably loved his ex more. The dialogues are infused with easygoing lyricism, the echoes (the sound of a slide projector, a plot point about violet flowers) are muted and organic, and the scene segues are like silk. The ending is a tad schmaltzy, but the look on Rampling’s face strips away any trace of treacle. Haigh proves, again, that he’s one of the best “relationship” filmmakers today.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign