Entertainment & Arts

Michael Fassbender becomes the talk of Venice

Michael Fassbender at the Venice Film Festival
Image caption Fassbender said he was humbled by his best actor award

Throughout the duration of the 68th Venice Film Festival, there were two words on the lips of every critic: Michael Fassbender.

The 34 year-old actor, who was born in Germany and grew up in the Republic of Ireland, starred in two competition films at the festival - David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and a British film - Steve McQueen's Shame.

It's for the latter, in which he plays a successful New Yorker struggling with sex addiction, that he's been awarded a Golden Lion for Best Actor.

It was the most popular choice of the evening, as even the press room, full of hard-to-please critics, erupted into cheers.

This has been Fassbender's breakthrough year into the mainstream - so far the actor has played the young Magneto in X-Men: First Class and portrays Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.

But a win at Venice is often a fast track to awards season nominations - both Helen Mirren for The Queen and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler are previous recipients of this acting prize.

"It's really nice when you've taken a chance on a film and you hope the subject is relevant," Fassbender said as he collected his award.

"Steve McQueen is my hero."

UK success

Shame is a controversial film which will shock some audiences.

Fassbender is naked, physically and emotionally, as he struggles with his addictions and his inability to form relationships. His sister, played by Carey Mulligan, is the only human he can relate to.

Image caption Fassbender and McQueen first worked together on 2008's Hunger

Yet some critics claim that in the hands of British artist and director McQueen, pornography is transformed into art - and the movie won a seven minute standing ovation at its world premiere in Venice.

It's already been sold in the USA.

The director and actor have a close relationship after making another arthouse hit, Hunger, together in 2008.

"I would only have made this film with Michael Fassbender," McQueen declared. "No other actor would have had the capability of doing it."

Fassbender's award is a critical endorsement for Shame.

Associated Press reporter Sheri Jennings described it as "the buzz film of the festival".

Yet it didn't win the Golden Lion for Best Film which went to Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Faust.

But it's another hit for the now defunct UK Film Council, which part-funded the movie, giving Steve McQueen carte blanche to do exactly as he wished.

It also gave money to another British film that scooped an award at Venice, Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights.

Arnold's long-term director of photography, Robbie Ryan, won best cinematography for the film, where the Yorkshire landscape was described as "another character".

Wuthering Heights also received a long standing ovation at its premiere.

It offers a less traditional version of the classic book, with little dialogue. Arnold cast teenagers who had never acted before in the roles of Cathy and Heathcliff.

Shame and Wuthering Heights may have been the only British films to win accolades at Venice, but the festival director Marco Mueller claimed "if there is a national cinema represented here at Venice in 2011, it is the UK's".

Keira Knightley and Kate Winslet both had leading roles in Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method and Roman Polanski's Carnage respectively.

Madonna cast rising stars Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy in her period piece W.E.

And British ensemble piece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was also in competition - and there was disappointment this stylish spy thriller came away empty-handed.

Playing safe

Image caption Jury president Darren Aronofsky praised the quality of films this year

Gary Oldman, who plays agent George Smiley, had been seen as another candidate for best actor.

Michael Fassbender paid tribute to him in his winning speech, saying: "I have been following Gary Oldman's career since I was 14, and I feel very, very humble tonight."

Tinker Tailor may draw some consolation from Darren Aronofsky, the president of this year's jury, who explained that the quality of films at this year's event was both "exhilarating and maddening as the standard is so high. Films that would normally walk away with a major prize will go away empty-handed".

Indeed, there was surprise that Roman Polanski's Carnage which had won rave reviews, wasn't included on the winning list.

Instead other awards went to Italian refugee movie Terrafirma and Japanese tragic-comedy Himizu, which was filmed in the rubble after the earthquake and tsunami this year.

What is certain about this year's event is, that after fears it was sinking as Hollywood deserted to the rival festival at Toronto, it has managed to swim - with about 50 world premieres being held over the last 10 days.

Ironically, it's been helped by the economic downturn as major studios commission "safe" box office bets.

Many A-list actors have turned to arthouse directors like Polanski and Cronenberg for fresh challenges - and these are the kind of films that show at Venice.

It is ironic too, that the UK Film Council used to steer its movies to premiere at Toronto, but now no longer exists.

If that policy had still been in place, Michael Fassbender wouldn't have his Golden Lion, which he was last seen using as a cup for beer.

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