• Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson in Life (2015).
The Berlinale kicked off overnight and several Australians look set to impress, in particular the biopic on James Dean from writer Luke Davies.
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SBS Film
6 Feb 2015 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2015 - 2:48 PM

Since The Grand Budapest Hotel opened the Berlin Film Festival last year, Wes Anderson’s eccentric lovable movie has gone from strength to strength. It might even take out this year’s best picture Oscar. The Berlinale, as it’s affectionately called, looks set to unearth new gems this year, and Anton Corbijn’s Australia-Germany-Canada co-production, Life, looks set to make an impact when it has its world premiere, even if it is not competing.

Scripted by Australian writer Luke Davies (Candy), Life is based on the real-life friendship that developed between James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), when the Magnum photographer was commissioned to photograph the fledgling star in 1955. The pair embarked on a photographic journey across the US that would change Stock’s life and provide the world with some of the most iconic images of Dean.

Also from Australia: Brodie Higgs’s Elixir, about a Bosnian vagabond who comes to Berlin to become an artist, will have its world premiere in Berlinale’s Perspektive Deutsches Kino. Robert Connolly’s Australian hit Paper Planes will open the youth-oriented Generations K-Plus, while Damon Gameau’s documentary That Sugar Film (releasing here in February) will screen as part of Culinary Cinema.

The biggest splash no doubt will be made on and off screen by the unusually large contingent of actresses, including Helen Mirren, Juliette Binoche, Léa Seydoux and Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett.

Festival director Dieter Kosslick explains that many of the films in this year’s program focus on “strong women in extreme situations”.

Catalan director Isabel Coixet, only the second woman to direct an opening film at the Berlinale, premiered the English-language Nobody Wants the Night on Thursday night. The film, written by Miguel Barros, follows Josephine Peary (Binoche)—wife of North Pole explorer Robert Peary—as she forms a friendship with an Inuit woman, Alaka (Rinko Kikuchi), during the tense wait for her husband to return from his final successful attempt to reach the North Pole. Its atmospheric depiction of the bitter cold the women endured seems for real.

“We had to create the chill using our imagination because it was really bloody warm in the studio,” Binoche explained animatedly at the film’s opening press conference. “We only had 10 days in Norway and then it was Teneriffe in June in fur!” Her co-star Gabriel Byrne noted how she used to have a large refrigerator to walk into on set to get in the mood.

After her stellar turn in Sundance in Strangerland, Kidman again takes to the desert as early 20th century adventurer and spy Gertrude Bell, in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, while Blanchett does double-duty, appearing in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups alongside Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, and as the wicked stepmother in Disney’s Cinderella at the end of the festival.

Robert Pattinson also appears in two movies: he’s British Army Colonel and archaeologist TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, in Queen of the Desert as well. Luckily, though, the naturally shy Brit will not have to deal with the sexual controversy of his previous Berlin entry, Bel Ami. He is leaving that to his good buddy, Irish actor Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey—though it seems Dornan will be keeping quiet as there is no press conference for the sexually charged film.

In Queen of the Desert, James Franco plays Henry Cadogan, a low-rung diplomat at the Tehran british Embassy who wasn't a suitable match for the British heiress. Franco is clearly ticking off the German New Wave directors as he has also teamed with Wim Wenders for the out-of-competition Every Thing Will Be Fine, where he stars as an author who struggles after a car accident changes his life.

Franco already starred in three films in Utah so that it’s hard to keep up. True Story, co-starring Jonah Hill, was one of the Sundance audience favourites; I Am Michael produced one of his most nuanced performances; and he appeared with Henry Hopper in the Slamdance closing film, the well-reviewed Yosemite. (Gabrielle Demeestere directed the film from her own script adapting three of Franco’s short stories.)

I Am Michael is also in Berlin. First-time feature director Justin Kelly told the opening night Sundance crowd that his film would never have been made without Franco, who is one of the producers. The absorbing, surprisingly commercial film tells the controversial true story of Michael Glatze, a gay activist and high profile San Francisco magazine editor who after a series of panic attacks found religion, renounced his homosexuality and became a preacher with a wife. The movie has helped Glatze come to terms with his past and he is now in contact with his former lover played by Zachary Quinto. Franco, of course, is coming in the even more controversial comedy, The Interview, releasing Feb 12 in Australia.

Ryan Reynolds, who in Sundance delivered one of his best dramatic portrayals alongside an outstanding Ben Mendelsohn in Mississippi Grind, comes to Berlin in Woman in Gold. Dame Helen Mirren plays a Jewish octogenarian fighting for a Klimt painting stolen from her family during WWII, while Reynolds plays her lawyer.

Like Mirren, Ian McKellen is portraying older in his role as a 92-year-old Sherlock on his very last case, in Mr. Holmes. The film marks his reunion with Bill Condon, who scripted and directed the British legend to Oscar attention in 1998’s Gods and Monsters, that is, before The Lord of the Rings.

The very well-preserved Charlotte Rampling, who turned 69 yesterday (Feb 5), stars in 45 Years, Andrew (Weekend) Haigh’s film which follows a woman in the five days leading up to her 45th wedding anniversary. Party plans are going well, until her husband receives a letter (Tom Courtenay) informing him that his first love has been found dead, frozen in the icy glaciers of the Swiss Alps. As their anniversary celebrations grow closer, they delve further into their past, leaving their future in question.

Elisabeth Moss also stars in the world premiere of the thriller Queen of Earth, though she is unable to attend.