Capital collection

Sense and Sensibility raunchy? Nixon sympathetic? Richard III witty?
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The Independent Culture
Berlin in windy, sub-zero February is the least hospitable of the major festivals. But this year, however, it has managed to pull in some major stars. There was Emma Thompson, whose Sense and Sensibility is known in these parts as Sinn und Sinnlichkeit, a slight mistranslation which (deliberately no doubt) makes it sound slightly raunchy.

There was John Travolta for Get Shorty (splendidly called here Schnappt Shorty) and his co-star Danny DeVito, threatening to eat only pig in revenge for the fact that Babe scooped several Oscar nominations and his film none - a diet that should not be difficult to follow in this pork-and- potatoes city. And there are more to come: Tim Robbins, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts... But unlike festivals that programme Hollywood's duds in order to bag a couple of big names, here it's the British and American films in the Official Selection that are leading the field.

Richard III is adapted from the highly praised 1989 National Theatre production which transports Shakespeare's crazed tyrant to the modern period where he would most comfortably flourish: the black-shirted 1930s. It's a bold, free interpretation, with the text pared down in the service of a sleek, fast-moving political melodrama. The director, Richard Loncraine, finds fresh and surprising ways of presenting the well-worn speeches. "Now is the winter of our discontent'' starts as a smiling, sycophantic speech at a gala ball and ends as a snarling monologue in a urinal. Ian McKellen, an actor whom cinema has rarely used to full advantage, is a witty, outrageous Richard who flirts confidently with the audience in his direct-to-camera soliloquies.

Richard Nixon isn't in quite the same league as his namesake as a historical villain, and Oliver Stone's 191-minute sprawl over the life and times of the ex-president is uncharacteristically subdued and almost melancholy. It hops around in time from Watergate to the Chequers incident to Dickie's strict Quaker childhood to Kent State, Cambodia and Peking - it's a little supercharged with detail, especially in the long Watergate sections. Nixon emerges as the victim of what Stone melodramatically names The Beast: that old military-industrial complex encompassing the CIA, the Mafia, Wall Street and other tentacles of the system. None of which comes as a great surprise from this director, nor is altogether convincing.

The heart of Nixon is a fascinating psychological portrait of this troubled man - charmless, ugly and unloved (even his dog doesn't like him). One suspects that Stone, for all his protestations, has something of a soft spot for the man. Anthony Hopkins gives a commanding central performance - it's a small paradox to have this most magnetic of actors playing a thoroughly uncharismatic man. The facial likeness to Nixon is only a skilful illusion, but he has the gestures down pat: the hunched shoulders, the stiffness of manner, the sudden, disconcerting flashes of teeth - as one character remarks, it's as though his smile and his face are never in the same place at the same time.

The festival has been less successful so far in finding first- class movies from the rest of the world. The Taiwanese director Edward Yang's Mahjong portrays an island careering headlong down the capitalist road through the comically intersecting stories of a group of gangsters and bourgeois opportunists. It's an intelligent film wrecked by some uneven acting, notably one embarrassing performance in a major English-speaking role. In All Things Fair, Bo Widerberg's first cinema film for some years, a Swedish schoolboy seduces, or is seduced by, his teacher with slightly predictable results: it's handsome, conventional, over-long, but with some good jokes and one interesting character, the boozy, cuckolded husband whose reaction to the affair takes the story down surprising byways. Holy Week comes from Andrzej Wajda, another director who has been quiet for quite a while. It is set during the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, but uses the event as a backdrop; the focus is on a handful of people living in a suburban apartment house where one family is sheltering a Jewish woman. As the camera prowls in tight close-ups around this microcosm of wartime Poland, each reacts differently to her presence in a stark, economical study of hypocrisy, honour and betrayal.

In the sidebar events, the biggest disappointment was Unforgettable, John Dahl's follow-up to The Last Seduction, a thriller centred on a serum that enables the user to relive other people's memories - the title, alas, proved a misnomer. Welcome To the Dollhouse, an American independent film that came trailing a red-hot reputation from Sundance, did not quite justify the hype but was an amusing, provocative piece about growing up geeky and unpopular in small-town New Jersey. In Fallen Angels, a cool study of beautiful losers, the hand-held camera work is liable to induce seasickness in anyone sitting in the front row. It should appeal to fans of the director Wong Kar-Wai's last film, Chungking Express.