Sex, psychosis and spies lead the British charge

Venice Diary: Keira's chin, and other memorable turns

Cinematically speaking, I'm not the most fervent patriot. But I have to say that this year's Venice Film Festival belonged to the Brits. The three best competition films I saw were all British: Steve McQueen's Shame, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and (Swedish director notwithstanding) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I'll review next week.

The Hits

Arnold's Wuthering Heights is exceptionally bold – anti-heritage cinema with a vengeance. Its Heathcliff (James Howson) is black, a foundling brought to an inhospitable moorland community, where his presence catalyses a storm of violent resentment. Shot with an eye for elemental intensity, this militantly de-prettified period drama may not be true to the novel's language, but certainly honours its spirit of extreme psychopathology.

As for Shame, this New York-set drama has a commanding performance by Michael Fassbender as a tormented sex addict. McQueen directs with a steeliness that represents a major advance on his Hunger. But the revelation is Carey Mulligan as the hero's troubled sister: anyone tempted to write her off, after An Education, as merely a Princess of Pert will eat their words.

The Misses

Madonna's W.E., about Wallis Simpson, was a rich woman's vanity project – a vacuous, sumptuously mounted fan letter to a dubious idol. Andrea Riseborough's brittle performance is far better than the film deserves. Still, Madonna can take comfort in not having drawn the most press show jeers. That honour went to That Summer, a French drama in which Euro-heart throb Louis Garrel is forever pouting disconsolately at having to shack up with sultry but wooden Monica Bellucci. Ah the ennui....

The Disappointments

Several eagerly-awaited titles didn't quite pull it off. Todd Solondz's Dark Horse was business as usual from the master misanthrope, a story of a suburban schlub that was witty enough but less confrontational than an episode of Arrested Development.

Alps was a demented conceptual drama by Giorgos Lanthimos, who made the Greek bombshell Dogtooth. But this downbeat story of a group who specialise in "replacing" the recently dead seemed to be running the same software again. Then there was David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, about a female patient of Freud and Jung. Scripted by Christopher Hampton, the film felt surprisingly staid. But there are fine performances from Michael Fassbender (again), Viggo Mortensen (a wonderfully dry Freud) – and also a bold if not entirely convincing Keira Knightley, whose chin undergoes such agonised contortions you wish Cronenberg had shot the film in 3D.

Off-piste highlights

1) Two Years at Sea, a superb docu-essay by British artist Ben Rivers, about the dream-like life of a hermit. 2) Whores' Glory, Michael Glawogger's eye-opening documentary about brothels in Bangkok, Mexico and Bangladesh, a nightmare parallel universe. 3) The restored We Can't Go Home Again, the 1973 experimental film by legendary director Nicholas Ray. No Hollywood mainstream name ever rebelled to make anything this far-out – Gus Van Sant eat your heart out.

Best Fun

By all normal criteria, Al Pacino's documentary Wilde Salome – about playing Herod on stage – was a wildly self-indulgent project by a dreadful old ham. But it's also a winning, crazily spirited outing by an irrepressible enthusiast who knows he's a comic turn. The revelation is Jessica Chastain as a ferocious Salomé. Who would have guessed from her levitating mom in The Tree of Life?

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