This is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad film. I cannot be clearer than that. Anyone who loved this widely praised film that garnered six Academy Award nominations (including for best picture, best actor, best director, and best supporting actress) be warned: you are going to hate this review. My instincts told me not to watch this film. I knew that it dealt with the world of high fashion, something I know little about and care even less. I knew that it was set in the world of the British aristocracy, a group that I despise as pretentious parasites. So why did I overrule my instincts and watch it? It was because Daniel Day-Lewis has acted in some good films and had said that he was retiring and I wanted to see what film he had chosen as his swan song. Also Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 91% rating and Metacritic gave it 90% so I figured that there must be something in it worth seeing.
I was wrong. After I watched almost half of the film in which nothing happens except boy meets girl, I was ready to call it quits and go and read a book but the sunk cost fallacy kicked in and I decided to watch a few more minutes hoping that my investment of time was not entirely wasted. And Something Did Happen! At last, I thought, things are picking up. But it turned out to be a false alarm and that plotline went nowhere. Similarly there were a couple of other subplots that suggested something interesting might happen but they too simply disappeared.
So what does happen in this film? Staring. Lots of staring. Or no doubt as the screenplay might have described it: Meaningful Exchange of Looks. Scene after scene consists of the two main characters staring at each other and when they speak it is to say the most banal things. If there were an Academy Award for staring, this film would easily win it. In fact, early on we are given a warning about this when, after a bout of staring, Vicky Krieps actually tells Day-Lewis that if they have a staring contest, she would win. The the rest of the film looked like just such a contest.
Here is the trailer, where they seem to have put in all the scenes where the actors showed any animation at all, with all the scenes where they silently butter their toast at breakfast omitted.
The only thing that captured my interest was the performance of Lesley Manville as Day-Lewis’s business manager, housekeeper, and confidante. Her steely performance reminded me of the infamous Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, except that Manville’s character was not evil. It was only when she was on the screen that this film became tolerable. The scenes involving just Day-Lewis and Krieps, which make up most of the film, were excruciatingly boring unless you are heavily into staring.
I am well aware that those who loved this film will say that I am a hopeless Philistine who lacks an appreciation of High Art. I plead guilty. When I see a film, I expect at a minimum an interesting story and characters that I become interested in and care about. I did not find it here.
I became curious as to why this film was rated so highly. Maybe there are features that low-brow viewers like me missed. But one can postulate other reasons. Americans tend to be overly impressed, infatuated even, with upper class British period pieces, with all its formal dressing up and luxurious settings and elegant parties with people speaking with posh accents. Look at how they go completely bananas when there is a wedding or a baby born to someone in the British royal family. I find that to be quite strange.
Eddie Izzard in his own inimitable style captures the kind of British film that seems to attract US audiences and compares it to US treatments. (Language advisory)