San Sebastian Film Festival - Episode Two

Fabulous females in Child's Pose, Le Week-End and Gravity, plus why Hanif Kureishi values age over youth.

by Amber Wilkinson

Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia in Child's Pose
Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia in Child's Pose
Two welcome features of San Sebastian Film Festival this year have been the presence of strong female characters and interesting roles for older actors - frequently in the same film, from the Romanian drama Child's Pose to British comedy drama Le Week-End and Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity.

All three feature performances by women that could easily be considered award worthy. Luminita Gheorghiu is intensely moving in Calin Peter Netzer's Child's Pose, which won the Golden Bear and FIPRESCI critics prizes in Berlin earlier this year. She plays Cornelia a domineering mother, who occupies the same sort of position, thanks to money, in modern Romania as the party elite did during the Communist era.

She wants to control everything in her orbit - in particular, her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) - which means she's not beyond trying to wreck his relationship, even pumping his maid for information.

So when Barbu knocks down and kills a child, her first thought is not for the parents but to plan a stratgegy to pay everyone off so that he dodges jail. Barbu finds himself stripped of his adulthood - back under her roof and with little to do but pout about the place, and as Cornelia tries to fix everything from the coroner's report to the eye witness, she begins to realise that her fur coat and finances can't protect her from some home truths.

Although Calin Peter Netzer's film is a bit heavy-handed in terms of its satire regarding the nouveau riche, he gets a cracking performance from Gheorghiu, who never lets her character slip into caricature. There is a tragic core to this woman whose entire life revolves around such a deadbeat son.

Lindsay Duncan as Meg in Le Week-End
Lindsay Duncan as Meg in Le Week-End
Lindsay Duncan's Meg is also a force to be reckoned with in Roger Michell's Le Week-End. After reaching the empty nest stage of her life, she and husband Nick are at the point of trying to work out what's left - if anything - of the love they once had.

A trip to Paris takes both of them out of their comfort zone, forcing them to confront each other and themselves. Duncan and Broadbent's performances nail Hanif Kureishi's script, even when the back and forth between them becomes a bit stodgy.

Kureishi and Michell deserve credit for creating a woman who is still desired both by herself and others.

Speaking about writing for an older cast, Kureishi said: "I find it much more interesting to write about older people. The film that I've written and Roger hasn't read is about a woman who is 75 and there's a teenage boy and somebody of 40 and someone of 60.

"With older people, the stakes are so high. You've got a little time left now, what are you going to do with it? And, how have you lived? What have you done? I find that complexity much more interesting than writing about someone of 21."

Complexity is exactly what Duncan, in particular, brings to the role in which a certain glance at her husband tells him more than shouting or praise ever would. It will be a crying shame if she doesn't make BAFTA's shortlist for best actress next year.

Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky in Alfonso Curaon's Gravity
Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky in Alfonso Curaon's Gravity
So then, to Sandra Bullock's performance in Alfonso Cuarón's masterful and mesmerising Gravity. At 49, she has gained a gravitas of her own - not least for winning the best acting Oscar for The Blind Side in 2009 - and has more than proved she has considerable dramatic talent beyond the comedic klutzes she has become best known for. Even in this year's messy The Heat, she rose above the material. Here, the film is all hers as scientist-turned-astronaut Dr Ryan Stone, spinning above the earth alongside George Clooney's veteran Matt Kowalsky. When a chain reaction sends space debris hurtling their way, cutting them off from NASA, they find themselves battling the infinite 'nothingness' of space.

"I feel like a chihuahua in a tumble dryer," Ryan tells Matt as she makes her first space walk and, for the first 20 minutes of this film, that's pretty much how the viewer feels too, struck by the vertiginous sight of earth as a twirl in the distance as Emmanuel Lubezki's camera roves around between the characters and their craft. Cuarón keeps the plot simple, which allows his actors to shine and Bullock delivers an intensity which must have been made all the more difficult by the fact that she frequently had to do it while drifting about or being spun like a top. A triumph of tension and technology, and I expect we'll see Bullock's name on Oscar nominations day.

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