Being the second film I’ve seen in as many weeks revolving around the slavery in the US, it was somewhat inevitable that Lincoln would invite a comparison with Django Unchained, so let me get it out of the way: they are completely and utterly different.
Lincoln, however, was a truly excellent film, and the two hours and twenty minutes I spent watching it on Saturday night entirely justified the vote of resounding confidence from the Oscar nominations. It was a soaring film, held aloft by assured and inspired performances almost completely across the board.
For the uninitiated, Lincoln is a film which follows US President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) through December 1864 and January 1865, as he tries to pass the 13th amendment and ban slavery, in the dying days of the civil war. It is a mixture of political thriller, and detailed character study, showing the key people of the time — Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) — and their roles in what has become a major feature of history.
Obviously, Day-Lewis is the star of the show, and his performance in the titular role was every bit as magnificent as is to be expected. The man has made only five films in the last ten years, and he clearly invests a lot in his performances. And no exception here. For nearly two and a half hours, I completely bought his confident use of Lincoln’s rhetoric, his movements, even his posture. It wasn’t so much that he portrayed the president, but rather that he became him.
But if Day-Lewis gets the accolades and applause, I really don’t think the film could have worked so well without Jones’ spot as leader of the abolitionist faction of the Republican Party. A man whose choice between hard principle and doing what is necessary to achieve his dream. It was an emotional, witty and dazzling performance, and his final scene summed up the film expertly.
The only performance which didn’t impress me was Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln. A woman on the edge of madness cannot be easy to play, but Field’s performance too often crossed over into the tremulous and wailing, clinging too often to stereotype and cliche, and lacking the nuance of other actors.
If I were to change anything, I would have ended it with Lincoln’s classic silhouette as he left his cabinet to head to that fateful play at Ford’s theatre. The scenes after didn’t add anything, and the simple knowledge of where Lincoln was going to would be enough to conclude the story.
I’m not a historian, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. And there is probably some mileage in claims that Lincoln under-represents the role of black Americans in abolitionism. But overall, it was a triumph of film-making, managing to blend beautiful scenes with powerful images of history, all centred around one actor’s stunning rendition of an extraordinary man.