Posted: January 30, 2013 in Cinema

This could jolt anyone accustomed to fast-cut, high speed modern cinema. Here is a film that relies on the traditional (dare I say old-fashioned?) values of fine actors speaking eloquent words and a master director who knows how to set up and frame every image to maximise its impact. Spanning just a few months and focussing mostly on the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution (the abolition of slavery), it also depicts key aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s public and personal life. Essentially, this is an analysis of power, how it is gained, how it can be used and how it affects someone who possesses it and those around them. Director Steven Spielberg is in his “Schindler’s List” mode, serious, restrained and pensive, correctly allowing the writer and the actors to do their work unimpeded. Potentially, any Hollywood bio-pic is a minefield of cliches, but Spielberg avoids most of them so deftly that it comes as a surprise when one occasionally surfaces. That said, Spielberg allows himself a few flourishes which lighten the mood and add to the enjoyment; for example, quite early in the film a crowd of Congressmen parts to reveal the first appearance of Tommy Lee Jones; in a theatre, this would draw a round of applause for the entrance of a major actor; in cinema, it is the equivalent to a fanfare of trumpets and it says “here comes a star turn, Oscar voters take note”. And indeed this is an Oscar-worthy supporting performance, but taking the leading role is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, subtle, powerful, towering, human and completely unforgettable. At the film’s heart is Tony Kushner’s beautifully literate screenplay which encourages all the actors to shine; even Sally Field, as Mrs Lincoln, is for once bearable. It is unwise to label a film a masterpiece too soon after seeing it, as the passage of time can alter perspectives, but right now this seems to me to be the greatest film so far this century.

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