Poetic or pretentious? (Not that they’re mutually
exclusive.) There’s every reason to be skeptical about “The Better Angels,” a lyrical,
black-and-white rendering of two years in the backwoods boyhood of Abraham
Lincoln. The writer and director, A.J. Edwards, is a protege of Terrence Malick
— he has worked on several Malick films, and was an editor on “To the Wonder”
— and the imagistic trailer suggests a film that has picked up the worst of
his mentor’s tics. I’m a great fan of Malick, but at times he has gone over a
cliff. Do all those hackneyed shots of sun-dappled wheat fields in “To the
Wonder” mean a thing?
Forget that trailer, though, because “The Better Angels” is stunningly
beautiful, fresh and substantial. It sweeps viewers into a world that contains
its own gracefully flowing rhythm.
Although rooted in historical research, this is obviously
far from a conventional biopic. With bare traces of dialogue or plot, it powerfully captures the
magic of inspiration and genius. The hero’s unpromising rustic background — living in a wooden cabin, plowing the
fields – helped create one of America’s most important and iconic presidents.
The film begins in 1817 when Lincoln is an unschooled boy of
8. His gifts are recognized and fostered by his
mother, Nancy, (an ethereal Brit Marling) and after her death by his
equally devoted stepmother. As Sarah Lincoln, Diane Kruger creates a woman of quiet
eloquence, with a real spine. There’s great tenderness and poignancy in the way
these uneducated women insist that their son go to school, and have every chance
to flourish. That means sometimes going
up against his stern father (Jason Clarke), a hard-working farmer who
lacks their sensitivity and insight.
Because the film has relatively little dialogue, the young
Abe (played by a non-actor, Braydon Denney) displays none of the rhetorical flair now associated with
Lincoln. But then the entire film is driven by the unspoken ambitions and
emotions of people living simple lives. There are more words in the voiceover
than are spoken on screen. That narrative, with its folksy tone, may sound contrived,
but it is based on an actual interview with Lincoln’s cousin, Dennis Hanks, done
in 1890 when Hanks was an old man looking back on their shared youth.
The black and white cinematography, by Matthew Lloyd, works effectively
to create a world that feels foreign to modern viewers, as the camera roams the
woods, the fields, and the river that swoops along, suggesting the wider world
where Lincoln will find his place. There
are a few too many syrupy shots in which the camera climbs a tree toward the
sunlight, but that is a slight imbalance.
“The Better Angels” — the title comes from Lincoln’s first
inaugural speech, invoking “the better angels of our nature” — is very earnest,
which goes against the tide of current cinema. (Malick himself has become increasingly
earnest since “Badlands”). But there is
nothing self-satisfied or pompous about its tone, which is as modest as our
image of Lincoln himself. Young Lincoln’s
world was not glamorous, but the film that captures it has true poetry and