Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Flamboyant film line-up in Berlin

By Emma Jones
Entertainment reporter, BBC News, in Berlin

The 59th Berlin International Film Festival began on Thursday with 18 productions vying for the Golden Bear for best picture, to be awarded on 14 February.

Jude Law
Jude Law is barely recognisable as transvestite Minx

Michelle Pfeiffer plays a middle-aged French courtesan in Cheri; Dame Judi Dench is magnificent as a magenta-nailed, chain-smoking fashionista in Rage.

And in the same film, Rage, Jude Law is a cross-dresser who goes by the name of Minx.

As the curtain goes up on the 59th Berlin Film Festival, critics can reflect that stars have certainly been rummaging in their dressing-up boxes this year.

Pfeiffer is resplendent in the costumes of the 1920s as she takes to the screen as the cast-off mistress of a young aristocrat, Cheri, who is forced by his mother to marry for money.

Directed by The Queen's Stephen Frears, Cheri should also gain favourable reviews for Kathy Bates as a sour dowager, and for Pride and Prejudice's Rupert Friend as the young Cheri.

Fashionistas

But it is another British effort, Rage, which has already entranced critics, based solely on promotional pictures of Dench and Law.

The ensemble cast includes Eddie Izzard, Lily Cole and Steve Buscemi in a tragi-comedy set in the New York fashion industry.

It is directed by Londoner Sally Potter, best known for making Orlando in 1992.

And given that the star of Orlando, Tilda Swinton, is the head of the international jury in Berlin this year, Rage may find an influential fan.

However, even the fashion industry would find it hard to compete with the flamboyance of the late writer Quentin Crisp.

John Hurt reprises his role as the socialite on the 100th anniversary of Crisp's birth. The TV movie about his last days, An Englishman in New York, will screen as part of the festival programme.

Hurt has already played Crisp in the 1970s in the critically acclaimed The Naked Civil Servant.

Timely thriller

Flamboyance is not necessarily a byword for the Berlin Film Festival.

Generally the festival has a reputation for showing thought-provoking and political movies which can be overlooked by the more Oscar-driven Cannes and Venice festival selections.

Clive Owen
Clive Owen stars in zeitgeist banking thriller The International

At least it reverts to type with a film which is mainstream but timely - the world premiere of German director Tom Tykwer's film The International.

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts play two Interpol agents trying to bring the executives of a high-profile bank to justice, amidst allegations of money laundering and destabilising governments.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick has managed to tick all the right boxes with this thriller: a German film-maker, two high-profile stars and a few wry parallels for journalists to draw with the current financial climate.

High-profile politics

However, it is British director Michael Winterbottom who will be really grabbing headlines with his documentary, The Shock Doctrine.

He has made a film based on the 2007 book by Naomi Klein, in which she put forward the theory of "disaster capitalism" in which national crises are used by governments and big business to exploit the economies of vulnerable countries.

Pinochet's Chile, Yeltsin's Russia, Iraq and Afghanistan are cited as examples of this policy.

Winterbottom is a favourite at Berlin. The Road to Guantanamo, his look at British detainees at the eponymous prison camp, won the Silver Bear at the festival in 2006.

However controversial, he can be fairly sure of an enthusiastic welcome from critics.

Elsewhere in the programme, the aftermath of war and terrorism is dealt with in London River, directed by French-born Rachid Bouchareb.

Brenda Blethyn stars as a mother waiting for news of her missing child after the London bombings of July 2005. She strikes up a friendship with a Muslim man, whose child has also disappeared.

Danish film Little Soldier looks at the homecoming of a female soldier from war, while Woody Harrelson stars in one of the most anticipated films of the fortnight, The Messenger.

Harrelson plays a returning solider from Iraq who is given the job of "Casualty Notification Officer", the man who has to inform relatives of their loved ones' deaths.

Co-starring Samantha Morton, it is a love story on the periphery of a conflict which has already been documented many times in American cinema.

Success spotting

Part of the appeal of both the Berlin and Sundance Film Festivals, held at the start of the year, lies in spotting the hits which may end up captivating audiences next year.

This year, it might well be An Education which has already screened to rave reviews at Sundance.

Written by Fever Pitch's Nick Hornby, it documents the growing pains of a teenage girl in 1960s England and stars Peter Saarsgard, Alfred Molina and Happy-Go-Lucky's Sally Hawkins.

Its charm has already led critics to hail it as a potential successor to Slumdog Millionaire.

Even before the Baftas and Oscars make their decision in 2009, the search is on for the hit of 2010.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 5 to 14 February 2009.

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