A pious drag

Film review: Lincoln is a verbose encounter of the wordiest kind

2.00

(12A)

Steven Spielberg's recreation of the last four months in the life of the 16th President of the USA is sombre, sincere, handsome and deeply reverential. It's also one of the talkiest movies ever made. Tony Kushner's screenplay makes the issue of slavery its centrepiece, but sets it within such a long crossfire of backroom intrigues, political skulduggery and rhetorical bluster that actual drama looks ready to expire on the carpet.

One could praise Spielberg for his restraint, setting the tone with a hushed opening scene in which two black soldiers talk, in the aftermath of battle, to a seated figure, half in shadow, who turns out to be Mr Lincoln himself. It's a wonderful reveal, for we see at once both the homespun modesty of the man and the imposing grandeur of the President. If you watch Lincoln for nothing else you should watch it for Daniel Day-Lewis, whose chameleon magic somehow puts the living, breathing Abe right in front of us.

The lined, bewhiskered face is a replica, but it's in the subtler details that Day-Lewis seems to invoke his presence: the voice, a light, musing tenor (quite different from the expected rumble), and his awkward, halting gait are faithful to contemporary accounts. There's something mysteriously shrewd about him, too, even when he's at his homeliest and playing the genial storyteller – he seems to exist on a different wavelength to everyone else, including his wife, Mary (Sally Field, clucking for all she's worth), with whom he still grieves over the memory of a dead son. If Day-Lewis doesn't get the Best Actor Oscar I'll eat my stovepipe hat.

Once you've got over the brilliant impersonation, however, Lincoln is a (barely) animated history lesson, and a pious drag. Through the cigar smoke and the gloom you may discern some good performances, by David Strathairn as his Secretary of State William Seward, and by Tommy Lee Jones as the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, with a scowl and a wig to match. Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts fire into the older Lincoln son, Robert, determined against his parents' wishes to join up during the last gasp of the war against the Confederates. (There is one glimpse of brutal hand-to-hand fighting at the start, filmed with the same hallucinatory sense of horror that Spielberg's cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brought to Saving Private Ryan.) Kushner works up a little comic relief from a trio of scapegrace lobbyists, played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, who go about wrangling votes in support of the 13th Amendment, that is, the one to abolish slavery. But it's thin gruel to sustain us over two and a half hours.

Talkiness need not preclude drama; the film I most admired last year, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, was also packed with scenes of bearded men talking quietly in darkened rooms, yet they crackled with tension and unarticulated feeling. The director Nuri Bilge Ceylan transformed what initially seemed a parochial crime story into a transcendent rumination on guilt and remorse. Lincoln, ostensibly about a man and his mission, is really about America giving itself a pat on the back for getting rid of slavery – just. A significant point of interest is the final reckoning in the House, and the historical shame of those states that voted against abolition – who would have guessed New Jersey to be one of the naysayers?

Spielberg's film will mean much to a nation that maintains a near-childlike reverence for the office of President, and it may well become one of their classroom standards. I don't think it will be embraced quite so gratefully by the rest of the world.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform