Death in Venice, Hollywood-style

The film festival premieres Steven Soderbergh's thriller about a deadly virus starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon

It is already being billed as Sars: the Movie. And the Hollywood A-list cast in Steven Soderbergh's latest thriller is not being spared. Stars including Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle face a sticky end in Contagion.

The film, a sleek medical thriller which was exciting keen interest on the web even before it was unveiled yesterday at the Venice film festival, features a decidedly peaky-looking Paltrow as Patient Zero in a mystery epidemic that sweeps the world. Soderbergh, an Oscar winner for Traffic, said at a press conference yesterday that the complexity of the film made Hollywood heavyweights particularly important.

"It's very helpful to have movie stars playing as many of these roles as you can, because you're throwing so many characters and so much information at the audience it's very helpful for them to get a sort of reference point," he said. "There's a reason that movie stars have existed since the beginning of cinema. Audiences like to have people they can identify with."

Paltrow was laconic about working with Soderbergh. "I just did what he told me to do," she said. She was more forthcoming about playing the part of a woman who comes to a sticky end, with the top of her head removed in an autopsy. "I liked all that gory stuff. I liked having a seizure and biting a piece of Alka Seltzer and foaming at the mouth."

Paltrow denied there was any moral message in the fact that her character, a married woman, has had an illicit liaison just before she dies. "If a deadly virus was a punishment for extramarital affairs, there would be three people in this room right now. Maybe less, as we're in Italy."

Soderbergh quashed rumours he's giving up cinema to paint. Next week, he starts shooting a film about male strippers, followed by The Man from Uncle and a biopic of the pianist Liberace. Then, he says, he's taking a break. "It's less dramatic than it sounds – it's just a sabbatical."

This Venice is a prime year for British cinema, with no fewer than three UK films in competition. Shame, artist Steve McQueen's follow-up to his acclaimed Hunger, stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in a story of sexual addiction. Fish Tank director Andrea Arnold is offering a Wuthering Heights that promises to cast an interracial light on the Cathy-Heathcliff romance.

Arguably the hottest ticket in the festival is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a new adaptation of John le Carré's novel, directed by Sweden's Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), with a cast including Colin Firth, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and headed by Gary Oldman as spymaster George Smiley, the part made famous by Sir Alec Guinness in the 1979 television series.

Hopes that it will live up to the TV version have been fuelled by an endorsement from Le Carré himself, who has called the film "a triumph" and said: "If people write to me and say, 'How could you let this happen to poor Alec Guinness,' I shall reply that, if 'poor Alec' had witnessed Oldman's performance, he would have been the first to give it a standing ovation."

Ones to watch: Vampires, moors and the end of the world

Notable premieres next week include Dark Horse, Todd Solondz's film about a thirtysomething stuck in arrested development. The Moth Diaries, based on the vampire novel by Rachel Klein, premieres on Tuesday. Andrea Arnold's adaptation of Wuthering Heights is the first to feature a black Heathcliff, and the apocalyptic America drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth is directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Willem Dafoe.

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