Lincoln Movie Review 1 126

Based partly on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and set during the American Civil War, Lincoln tells the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which would legally abolish slavery in the United States.

It would have been easy for director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kurshner (who also wrote Spielberg’s Munich) to produce a standard biopic that covered Lincoln’s entire life, from childhood to his infamous assassination. But instead we have a shrewdly placed re-telling of the most significant period in Lincoln’s Presidency and one of the most important turning points in American history. This specific but never narrow-minded focus lends the film a palpable immediacy even as it covers a lot of ground along the way.

The spotlight is even more on Daniel Day-Lewis in front of the camera as it is on Spielberg behind it. It might be obvious to sing the incomparable actor’s praises once more but he undoubtedly gives yet another exquisite performance to add to the list, enveloping himself in the persona of this historic man until he’s barely recognisable and entirely convincing, continuing his astonishing knack of disappearing into his roles and making you forget you’re watching an actor perform. Here his surprisingly high-pitched voice and subdued demeanour means he gives a less forceful portrayal of the titular President than you might expect but the film is all the better for his subtlety. This isn’t There Will Be Blood – although just as much presence is felt here as there was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece – but his performance draws you in different but equally compelling ways. I would be shocked if he didn’t win the Best Actor award come Oscar time.

Day-Lewis is, indeed, the focus of attention but we mustn’t forget the varied supporting cast including key performances from Sally Field as Lincoln’s faithful wife Mary Todd, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressional leader and supporter Thaddeus Stevens and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert, desperate to fight for his country. On top those there’s a veritable who’s-who of recognisable faces popping up here and there including John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace, to name but a few, all utilised in a beautiful ensemble fashion to compliment the centre stage performance by Day-Lewis.

John Williams’ predictably uplifting score and Janusz Kaminski’s soft, easy-on-the-eyes cinematography remind us that we’re firmly on Spielbergian territory here. Many people had a problem with the in-your-face sentimentality of Spielberg’s previous film War Horse (I personally thought it got away with it) but they might be pleased to know that while Lincoln is partly sentimental it differs from his equestrian epic in that the emotion feels far more woven into the fabric of this story rather than shoved down your throat.

It’s an interesting coincidence that Lincoln has arrived in UK cinemas around the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s deep South-set tale of slavery Django Unchained. They would make an interesting double-bill as they represent two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways, Tarantino dealing with the harsh realities of black slavery while Spielberg deals with the story of getting rid of it, the behind-the-scenes of power and fight for human (and American) rights. In the wrong hands scenes of in-depth political discussion could have been overwhelming and hard to keep up with but Spielberg and Kurshner make it accessible to those not up on their American history while never losing sight of the fact that this was a complicated point in history.

Spielberg tackles this hugely important story that begs to be told in the mature, assured manner only a man of his experience could really accomplish. He manages a film that is at once epic and intimate, sweeping and up-close-and-personal to make you feel like you’re getting the bigger picture while never missing out on the humanity. It serves as an effective cinematic history lesson as much as it does a compelling piece of historical drama.

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Lincoln is released in UK cinemas on January 25th.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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