D: A.J. Edwards / 95m
Cast: Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Braydon Denney, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley, Cameron Mitchell Williams, McKenzie Blankenship
Indiana, 1817. Eight year old Abe Lincoln (Denney) lives with his father Tom (Clarke), mother Nancy (Marling), and younger sister Sarah (Blankenship) in an area of “unbroken forest”. They are joined by Nancy’s orphaned cousin, Dennis Hanks (Williams) who becomes an older brother to Abe. Abe’s father works as a farmer and a carpenter; he’s a taciturn man who doesn’t drink alcohol, gamble or curse, but he is a harsh disciplinarian, and Abe often finds himself being punished for some misbehaviour or minor infraction.
Abe has a better relationship with his mother, who is kind-hearted and supportive of his attempts to educate himself. She is a nurturing influence, one he thrives under, and the time he spends with her helps offset the onerous chores he has to do on the farm. But Abe is left adrift when Nancy contracts milk sickness and dies. His father tries to carry on but it doesn’t last long. He leaves Abe, Sarah and Dennis to manage the farm while he goes off to find another wife. When his father returns, it is with a new bride, Sarah “Sally” Bush Johnston (Kruger), a widow from Kentucky who has three children of her own. In her own way she proves as supportive and nurturing of Abe as Nancy was, and despite some initial reservations, Abe warms to her.
As their relationship deepens and strengthens, Abe’s relationship with his father remains the same, with an added emphasis on Abe’s “toughening up”. It’s around this time that Abe’s honesty becomes more noticeable (even if it leads to his being caned by his father), and his education receives a boost from the attention of local schoolteacher Mr Crawford (Bentley). Crawford seeks Tom’s permission to provide Abe with extra tutoring; as he tells Sally, Abe won’t be a backwoodsman for very much longer. Tom agrees, and Abe is set on the path to securing his future.
An idyllic looking reminiscence on the early life of Abraham Lincoln, The Better Angels is a deliberately slow-paced meditation on the influences that helped the young Lincoln grow up to be the man he became. Taking as its focus the period of his life when he lost and gained a mother, the movie is a studied, thoughtful examination of the trials and joys of growing up in a wooded wilderness.
Shot in glorious, lustrous black and white, the movie paints a compelling portrait of a time and a place where life was certainly difficult, and sometimes harsh: the family’s cows get sick and die from eating poisonous weeds, and Nancy dies as a result of drinking their infected milk. When Tom Lincoln goes off to find a wife, it seems uncaring and thoughtless to leave his children and Dennis to cope until he returns, but this was part and parcel of life in America during that period, where a normal childhood had to be grabbed whenever possible. It’s to Edwards’ credit that he’s able to show that the young Lincoln was able to be a child as well as a farm labourer, and that he was able to find beauty in his surroundings, both in his two mothers and via the ever-changing natural habitat he was a part of.
Abe’s relationships with Nancy and Sarah are the heart and soul of the movie, delicate and affectionate and heartfelt, with both Marling and Kruger providing very different, yet very intuitive performances. Marling behaves almost like a wood nymph, her love of nature and the way in which she embraces it allowing Abe’s mind to embrace it too. Kruger is equally effective, imbuing Sarah with a quiet determination that Abe will realise his full potential, and unsupportive of her new husband’s strict approach to parenting. (It could be argued that without these two women in his life at such a formative time, then Abraham Lincoln’s future would have been entirely different.) As his stern, reticent father, Clarke is a stoic figure seemingly bereft of feeling and only able to connect with his son when correcting him. Indeed, the nearest he gets to showing any tenderness is when he’s teaching Abe how to wrestle, but it’s an awkward tenderness and borders on uncomfortable – for both of them.
The young Abe is played with quiet composure and assurance by Denney (making his movie debut), and he’s a great find, matching his adult co-stars for sincerity and skill. He has a natural ability that allows the viewer to engage and understand Abe instantly. Nancy mentions at one point that Abe is asking her questions she can’t answer; looking at Denney you can believe it. He’s also effective in scenes where he and his mothers bond through learning and their mutual appreciation of nature, his expressions of curiosity and understanding perfectly shaped and naturalistic. It’s a tremendous performance, and anchors the movie superbly.
With a quartet of understated yet superb performances at its centre, The Better Angels‘ glowing black and white cinematography emphasises the poetry and the beauty of the seasons, and is exhilarating to experience. Edwards’ use of shade and light, executed with tremendous precision by DoP Matthew J. Lloyd, is hugely impressive, immersing the viewer in shots of extraordinary seductiveness. Rarely has unspoilt countryside looked so alluring or captivating, and rarely has it looked so beautiful as it does here, in black and white. With every scene captured with breathtaking attention to period detail and highlighted by some of the most exquisite framing and composition seen in recent years, the movie is a visual treat par excellence.
Rating: 9/10 – some viewers may bemoan the slow pace and emphasis on recurring shots of natural beauty, but The Better Angels presents a fully realised world that is immersive and often deeply profound; with Edwards in full control of both the script and the world he’s recreating, this is a movie that resonates long after it’s been seen.