REVIEW: Lincoln Starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Directed by Steven Spielberg. M. 4.5 stars.
The historical drama Lincoln has garnered 12 Oscar nominations - but the one most likely to win and the most compelling reason to see this absorbing, stirring film, is Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as President Abraham Lincoln, at a defining moment in US history.
Day-Lewis is one of those actors who makes others groan whenever they have a shot at an Oscar and discover he is a competitor. He's only made 11 films in the past 23 years, but has five Oscar nominations and two wins (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood).
Here his Lincoln is a leader at a momentous time. In January 1865, two months after being re-elected to a second term, he has two pressing concerns: negotiating an end to the four-year bloody civil war and passing legislation to abolish slavery.
In his countenance and bearing, one senses the great burden; in his posture and voice a resolute determination; and in his bones a weariness as he confronts seemingly irreconcilable forces at a time when democracy is threatened by internal divisions.
A man of intellect, conscience and cunning, and a charming storyteller, his Lincoln has to contend with entrenched opposition from within and outside his own party, as well as personal pressures. It is an extraordinary performance.
Most notable in supporting roles are Sally Field as Lincoln's grieving, unstable wife and Tommy Lee Jones as bewigged, cantankerous and ardent Lincoln ally Thaddeus Stevens - with worthwhile contributions from David Strathairn as Lincoln's Secretary of State, Hal Holbrook as an influential Republican politician, Jackie Earle Haley as a Confederate peace emissary, and especially James Spader as one of a trio (with John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) wooing congressional votes for Lincoln, often through bribery.
But director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (Munich, Angels in America) also deserve applause for making a movie about ideas and ideals that - despite its staginess, speechifying and solemnity - is intriguing in its intricacy as it deals with knotty political and constitutional complexities about equality, fairness and justice.
As a servant to the story, Spielberg finds the right balance between reverence and restraint, sentimentality and sensibility, while making a film with relevance and resonance for today, without pontificating about it.
It's a movie about the power of words and reasoning to facilitate action and an eloquent, engrossing and, at times, emotional civics lesson celebration about how politics has - and needs - room for principles, passion, debate and compromise, with malice towards none and charity towards all.
Anna Karenina Starring Keira Knightley. Directed by Joe Wright. M. ★★
A good story is king - and direction, performance and production its servants. Not so in Joe Wright's adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, in which presentation undermines and renders ineffectual a great novel and Russian love story.
Rather than empowering and enhancing this romantic tragedy, director Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) crafts a movie whose staging (literally) and style continually distract and disengage, impeding both emotional involvement and story enjoyment.
The story, set in Imperial Russia in 1874, is about Anna Karenina - wife of boring bureaucrat Alexei (Jude Law), a rich man of stiff moral rectitude, and a mother of a young son - who embarks on a passionate affair with dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Their disreputable affair contrasts with Anna's philandering princely brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald, with jarring Irish accent), and Stiva's landowner friend Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his love for young socialite Kitty (Alicia Vikander).
Wright immediately starts this romantic saga as a theatrical play, then also uses parts of the theatre as venues for different scenes. When a model train substitutes for a real one, you might hope that the whole movie isn't going to be delivered this way. Alas, it is.
Occasionally, Wright opts for actual settings, but repeatedly returns to his theatrical device, even ludicrously for a horse race. His heavily stylised direction freezes dancers at a ball, or has them disappear to spotlight one couple; extras act in choreographed unison; and all becomes artifice.
Sure, this approach symbolises the artificiality of Russian aristocratic society, but it also makes shallow or superficial the characters, including Anna. Keira Knightley follows Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh and Nicola Pagett in this great role, but her Anna seems more hypocritical, selfish, reckless and neurotic than a victim of double standards - and it's difficult to mount much, if any, sympathy for her plight.
Wright's continual attention-grabbing efforts to his direction leave little room for much other appreciation, although the movie is sumptuously visual and has several moments impressive and arresting in themselves.
Arguably creative and imaginative, Wright's direction is daring but misguided; it's the movie's alienating fatal flaw and a case of artistic folly.
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