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Stephen Frear's <i>The Queen</i> at Venice

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Venice (Reuters): The Queen, a superbly acted reconstruction of the crisis within the British monarchy caused by Princess Diana's death in 1997, is the early favourite to land the big prizes at the Venice Film Festival this year. By today, the sixth of an 11-day movie marathon, critics and the public are bowing and curtseying both before Stephen Frears's movie and leading lady Helen Mirren in the title role. Mirren's portrayal of Queen Elizabeth as she is forced to abandon her English stiff upper lip to meet the demands of a nation mourning the loss of Diana is both funny and touching.

''I thought it was a great film,'' said Lee Marshall, film critic for Screen International. ''It's commercially smart because clearly it is a subject anyone, anywhere in the world knows about and they do it in an irreverent and charming way.'' The two other early front-runners among 21 films in the main competition are French film maker Alain Resnais's ''Private Fears in Public Places'' and Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Resnais, who at 84 has directed more than 45 films and won the Golden Lion prize for best picture in 1961, examines our desperate quest for happiness in an intimate film set in a snow-covered Paris. Cuaron's apocalyptic vision of London in 2027 has Islamic radicals, illegal immigrants and vigilante rebels wreaking havoc in a bleak portrayal not only of a world gone mad, but one where humankind is no longer able to procreate and faces extinction.

''It's a compendium of the big crises of our time -- from demography to immigration to war,'' said Paola Jacobbi, who is covering the festival for the Italian edition of Vanity Fair. ''Not only are people not making children, but everyone's at war with everyone else. It cannot leave people indifferent.'' One uncomfortably realistic battle scene, which recalls television news footage from Baghdad or Grozny, features what appears to be blood splattered on the camera lens.

Venice has kept with tradition by featuring Asian films both in and out of competition, and of the five in the main line-up Syndromes and a Century from Thailand and the Taiwanese ''I Don't Want to Sleep Alone'' stand out so far. The Black Dahlia, which enjoyed the fanfare of opening this year's festival, drew mixed reviews. Scarlett Johansson stars in a story based on the grisly true-life murder of aspiring Hollywood actress Elizabeth Short in 1947. The similarly themed Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody and Diane Lane, takes viewers back to 1959 Los Angeles and centres around the mysterious death of television Superman hero George Reeves.

Director Paul Verhoeven, most famous for U.S. box office hits Basic Instinct and Total Recall, returned to his native Netherlands to shoot Black Book, and his high-octane World War Two thriller won warm praise from reviewers. Leading lady Carice van Houten, who plays a Jewish girl who infiltrates the local headquarters of the Gestapo for the resistance, is a candidate for best actress. Dry Season, Chad's first entry in competition at Venice, is also seen as in with a chance of scooping a prize. Media reaction to the selection so far has been positive, with Venice again combining the allure of Hollywood glamour with smaller scale, obscure art house cinema. ''I have not walked out of any films yet and I am not one to stay when I think the film has run past its time,'' said Jacobbi.

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