A Hidden Life (2020) – dir. Terrence Malick

Rob Salusbury

When he’s at his very best, there are few directors who can reach the emotional heights of Terrence Malick’s work. With films like Days of Heaven, Badlands, and The Tree of Life, the veteran American filmmaker has etched a series of stunning tapestries filled with natural beauty and moral angst, and his latest, A Hidden Life, deserves to sit in the very highest echelons of his filmography. 

This three hour epic is an adaptation of the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to step into line under Nazi occupation during WW2. Filmed amidst the stunning cloudy peaks of a breathtaking mountainscape, it is magnificent filmmaking. Beautifully composed, but increasingly disturbing in its depiction of how paranoia and evil can rip through even the most tranquil of communities, it taps into the evils of our current-day situation without ever becoming heavy-handed or tone deaf. A Hidden Life, like all of Malick’s best work, buried deep into the emotional heart of Franz’s situation. 

Through two remarkably committed central performances from August Diehl and Valerie Pachner (as Franz’s wife Fani), along with cinematographer Jörg Widmer’s ambitious use of extreme wide-angle lenses to shoot both the stunning alpine surroundings and Franz and Fani’s interactions, the film continually probed their determined efforts to resist mob rule and emphasised the struggles of their tortuous moral battle. 

But beneath all of the darkness, it was Malick’s instinct for creating space and his immaculate instinct for pacing that drew out an ultimately optimistic message. Through motifs both visual and musical, including the gorgeous refrain that is weaved throughout James Newton Howard’s stunning score, Franz and Fani’s love lifts them high above the blind rage and hatred of the rest of the village, their compassion for each other becoming the beautifully steady constant that withstood the storm of anger. Truly the story for our times.

Bridgerton Katie Drake

Released on Christmas day, the new Netflix series Bridgerton has been storming our screens, reaching 60 million households over the past month. The series is a pseudo-period drama set in 19th century Britain. It focuses on the dynamics in high-society, with the main character and so-called “diamond of the season”, Daphne Bridgerton, taken to several debutante balls as she tries to find a husband.

The series is particularly good at focusing on scandal – something often absent in current period dramas. Daphne is involved in a situation that compromises her honour and is forced to marry the Duke of Hastings, a wealthy man who vowed he never would. However, it is the only solution to prevent their scandal being revealed by local gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown – an anonymous member of high society.

A gripping and scandalous watch, Lady Whistledown’s identity is not revealed until the final moments, but provides lots dramatic tension and intrigue throughout the series.

However, what makes this series particularly interesting is its exploration of social issues both in the current day and those that would have existed during the period. The role of women in terms of sexuality and patriarchy, as well as race is explored in a progressive, empathic way. Race is all but ignored and the role of the duke is played by Rege-Jean Page presents viewers with interracial marriage which would have been unheard of at the time. It is a very progressive reflection on 19th century debutante culture.

Rumours suggest that due to the success of the first series, Netflix will be commissioning 7 more series so there will not be any shortage of binge material. It’s definitely something to watch if you’re struggling with lockdown boredom.

The Vast of NightPhoebe Adlard

Director Andrew Patterson’s debut film The Vast of Night is a thrilling nod to old school sci-fi mystery movies. Although this movie premiered in 2019 it was released to a wider audience in 2020. Set in the small fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s, it follows two high schoolers as they uncover potential extraterrestrial mysteries.

With a storyline that could easily have fallen into the realm of cliché, this film manages to give it a refreshing, charming and exciting twist that will keep you on the edge of your seat. The film opens in a high-school gymnasium before the start of a basketball match. Most of the sparsely inhabited town will be attending. We get a glimpse of the players skimpy shorts and the cheerleaders floor-length skirts, appropriate to the era!

After testing out a new tape recorder, Everett (a radio disc jockey) and Fay (a switchboard operator) leave the noisy venue and walk across the unsettlingly quiet town to get to their night-time jobs. After an interference of the radio, calls are cut off and Fay hears strange, unrecognisable noises through the line. She receives a call from a terrified woman warning her about strange occurrences just outside town. Fay seeks Everett’s help and together they throw themselves into a wild chase to discover what is really hiding in the vast night. This film is character driven, with long but capturing dialogue, that slowly draws audiences closer and luring them into its setting. Patterson’s low-budget film proves that you don’t need a crazy amount of funding to make a great movie. Expect an immersing, eery atmosphere, impressive tracking shots and great acting. If you’re into slow burn and sci-fi movies, you should definitely give this a shot!

NomadlandDaisy Holbrook

Written, directed, and edited by Chloe Zhao, Nomadland follows the life of Fern, (played by Frances McDormand) a 60-year-old woman who becomes a modern-day nomad following the loss of her husband, job, and community during the Great Recession.

Nomadland is a subtle, slow portrait of human existence, solitude, loss, and rediscovery, exposing what exists on the outskirts of mainstream society and how it feels to become an outsider. Through nuanced writing, Zhao is able to create characters that are profoundly human, conjuring a sense of rawness and believability within them. This poignant storytelling coupled with a cast predominantly formed of real-life nomads providing documentary-esque accounts of their personal stories and perspectives results in an incredibly powerful character study and exploration into an overlooked side of the new American Dream, and the consequential loss that follows with changing times. The quiet nature of Zhao’s storytelling draws the viewer in, immersing them entirely in an unseen part of life, and the people existing within it.

Set against a consistently beautiful backdrop of rural America, Nomadland’s cinematography works hard to perpetuate this sense of immersion, with each camera movement and frame conveying a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the characters. Concurrently, the film’s delicate score ties all of this together, providing a gentle vibrancy to every scene. The subdued, and sometimes silent, nature of the screenplay allows more emphasis to be placed on the score and sound design, enhancing the beauty of each scene as it unfolds.

Ultimately, Nomadland is both sombre and heart-warming in its depiction of solitude, providing a subtle, refined telling of an extremely powerful and complex story. Delivering social commentary and insight into a hidden side of contemporary America, coupled with stunning cinematography and a hauntingly beautiful score, Nomadland is a wonderful exploration of both the beauty and briefness of human existence.

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