Terrence Malick is back with his most acclaimed film in years. The divisive filmmaker clearly has an important story to tell with his latest epic, but across a nearly three-hour runtime, it’s too often overshadowed by style exercised with more imagination previously – 3/5
When discussing the great auteurs of cinema, you’ll rarely find Terrence Malick absent from the conversation.
It all began in 1973…
His directorial feature debut Badlands would go on to become one of the most noteworthy and acclaimed films of the decade, but of course, he was just getting started. Days of Heaven – his sophomore effort – is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful achievements of the medium. Indeed, it’s intoxicating in every aspect, which made it all the more surprising that he didn’t return with his next film – The Thin Red Line – for a staggering twenty years.
After 2005’s The New World, the filmmaker unveiled his most experimental and ambitious film to date. The Tree of Life was distinctly Malick, but now, many look back on it as the turning point, marking a new phase of his career.
His three subsequent offerings – To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song – were incredibly divisive upon release and numerous fans of his earlier work criticised Malick for a style-over-substance approach. However, A Hidden Life has been considered by the majority of his detractors as a return to form, telling the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to swear an oath and fight for Hitler during World War II.
When reflecting on claims that this is Malick’s return to form, it’s agreeable that his latest film does take a more narrative approach to storytelling and that there is a clear structure.
He wants to immerse us in the idyllic world that Franz has found in Radegund, drawing comparisons between person and place. There is a spiritual and religious connection between Franz, his family and the land, which is made to look like part of the clouds; a heavenly Eden. It’s through this exploration that cinematographer Jörg Widmer is able to capture moments of cinematic purity and bliss.
The first act is beautifully done and features everything you’d want from a Malick production, with atmospheric voiceover, striking imagery and inventive camerawork. However, this is a film which feels somewhat conflicted between two phases of the filmmaker’s career.
There is a story here to tell, but there are portions of the film which surrender to indulgence when really we should be exploring Franz’s emotional state and imprisonment. Instead, much of the three-hour runtime feels too repetitious, and there is a reliance on overbearing music to evoke the spiritual when really, these moments would be far more intimate and better served in silence. When you’re telling a three-hour epic, sometimes you need to exhibit some restraint.
In the end, it’s hard to believe that Malick has been unable to nurture more of a connection between us and Franz across such a hefty duration. Make no mistake, this is a personal story, but the way it’s been told creates such a sense of distance.
A Terrence Malick film is always a cause for celebration, as even today, very few make films like he does, with the exception of such directors as Carlos Reygadas (Our Time, Post Tenebras Lux). There are elements to admire, but that being said, this doesn’t achieve the sense of storytelling prominent in his earlier films, nor is it as stylish and absorbing as his output across the previous decade.