Murder, love, fish-men and some very bad decisions - our preview of the 74th Venice Film Festival

By Helen Barlow

The 74th Venice Film Festival, which kicks off next Wednesday, is packed with Hollywood talent and as in past years there are bound to be Oscar winners among them.

Frances McDormand is already being touted for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and British writer-director Martin McDonagh should be singled out as well.

The famed playwright of Irish parentage whose debut film In Bruges became an international sensation as Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson squared off in Belgium, here directs only his third feature and Billboards boasts his starriest cast to date.

McDormand plays a cantankerous foul-mouthed mum who is disgruntled that local Sheriff, Woody Harrelson, has not found her daughter’s killer. She uses billboards on the outskirts of town to begin a smear campaign. But when Sam Rockwell’s unhinged second-in-charge cop becomes involved things become hairy. Rockwell and Harrelson had appeared in McDonagh’s second feature Seven Psychopaths, a box office failure that was poorly marketed.

Here’s hoping Twentieth Century Fox gets it right with Billboards, which marks McDonagh’s first studio feature and his first time with the similarly wry-humoured McDormand. The 60 year-old actress who left an indelible impression with her Oscar-winning portrayal as Marge Gunderson in Fargo, directed by her husband Joel Coen, most recently won praise, and more awards, for the HBO series Olive Kitteridge.

Sally Hawkins, after receiving plaudits for Aisling Walsh’s Irish biographical drama, Maudie, looks like she has hit upon another winner with Guillermo del Toro’s surrealistic The Shape of Water, also a likely Oscar contender.

Set against the backdrop of Cold War-era America, the film follows Hawkins’ lonely mute Elisa as she works in a hidden high-security government laboratory. There she develops a relationship with a reptilian fish monster, a secret classified experiment, that appreciates her the way she is, unlike the humans who surround her. Sounds like the Mexican auteur is conjuring the kind of magic he displayed in his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth.

George Clooney will be on the Lido as will his good buddy Matt Damon for the black comedy Suburbicon, Clooney’s sixth effort as director. Based on a screenplay by Clooney’s other buddies, The Coen Brothers, the dark comedy/crime mystery focuses on flawed people making very bad decisions in 1950s suburbia.

Whether the film will fare better than Clooney’s previous directing efforts, remains to be seen. Certainly they’ve been a mixed bag, with the dramas The Monuments Men and The Ides of March being well received after his sports comedy Leatherheads, and initial offering Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, were disappointments.

Probably Clooney’s best directing to date has been with his second film 2005’s low budget Good Night, and Good Luck, about the real life McCarthy era dissident journalist Edward R. Murrow--and the story of remains as relevant as ever.

Surburbicon is the first of Clooney’s films in which he does not appear. Doubtless he’ll come up with some jokes about how his sex symbol imagine is on the wane, how his hair is greying more than ever and the twins are wearing him out.

Damon also stars in Alexander Payne’s highly anticipated social satire Downsizing where his genial occupational therapist realises he would have a better life by shrinking himself. Given that Payne won two Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars for The Descendants (starring Clooney) and Sideways (co-written by Jim Taylor who co-wrote the original screenplay for Downsizing) we should be in for another original well-crafted story.

Other films to look out for include Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated 45 Years. Up-and-coming Charlie Plummer, the star of Ridley Scott’s anticipated kidnap thriller, All the Money in the World, plays 15 year-old Charley who helps with family finances by taking a summer job in Portland, Oregan, with a washed-up horse trainer. He befriends a failing racehorse named Lean on Pete.

Old age love is in the air with the Netflix romance, Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda, 79, and Robert Redford, 81. Both actors will also receive lifetime achievement awards at the festival.

Italy's The Leisure Seeker, which stars Helen Mirren, 72, and Donald Sutherland, 82, focuses on an ailing older couple who take off in their old campervan to reclaim the experiences of their youth.

Stephen Frears's Philomena follow-up Victoria & Abdul, again teams the director, 76, with Judi Dench, 82. The film follows the friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim. Not sure if any hanky panky went on there, but we shall see. Dench of course reprises the role she played in Mrs Brown, which followed Queen Victoria’s relationship with her Scottish servant John Brown and she was Oscar-nominated for best actress.

Younger real life couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem co-star for the first time since 1992’s Jamon, Jamon, in Loving Pablo, which stars Bardem as Pablo Escobar. The film follows the drug lord's volatile love affair with Colombia's most famous journalist, Virginia Vallejo played by Cruz.

Other previous winners bringing their films to the Lido include Israel’s Samuel Maoz, who was awarded the 2013 Golden Lion for Jerusalem. He now premieres Foxtrot, a story inspired by his experiences as a soldier where he teams up with leading Israeli star Lior Ashkenazi (Norman, the Oscar-nominated Footnote). Aboriginal Australian director Warwick Thornton, the 2009 winner of the Cannes Camera d’Or for Samson and Delilah, now delivers Sweet Country, a 1920’s western set on the Northern Territory frontier starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and an Indigenous cast.

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