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East End Film Festival: The Better Angels

July 5, 2015

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Everyone’s well aware of what Abraham Lincoln did as President—and if you don’t, then you should be. The Better Angels, though, is more interested in how he became that man, detailing his childhood in exhaustive measure.

The film is A.J. Edwards’ debut feature, shot in dirty black and white which makes comparisons to his mentor and producer, Terrence Malick, inevitable. There’s little story to The Better Angels, instead we’re treated to an observation of Lincoln’s formative years, rather than an actual tale. Lincoln himself rarely speaks, and often appears on the peripheries of the film, to serve mostly as the audience’s eyes to the other characters.

After Steven Spielberg’s musty biopic, Edwards presents Lincoln in a far different light as he attempts to show how he became the man he did. In the isolated cabin in the woods, young Abe (newcomer Braydon Denney) lives with his emotionally withdrawn father (Jason Clarke), his loving mother (Diane Kruger) and two siblings (a brother and a sister). His father makes a living as a farmer and carpenter, but Abe shuns the physical labour, preferring to read all day.

Minimalism is the word of the day for Edwards, who never really shows any interest in crawling into Lincoln’s young mind. Even when his mother dies, there’s barely a shot of him reacting, the lens more focused on his stoic father and the moment is passed over in a minute, never to be looked back at. Unfortunately, the rare lines of dialogue which are spoken are either inaudible — Jason Clarke cranking his accent up to eleven — or clichéd: “He has a gift”, “He’s destined for great things.” These prophetic soundbites jar horribly, especially as Edwards is clearly aiming for naturalism.

A lot of the time, The Better Angels has the feeling of a documentary about it. During the many long scenes there’s a constant expectation of a professor’s dulcet tones to come on and describe how wrestling with his father affected Lincoln’s future self. The cinematography is beautiful, aided by the forest and wonderful landscape. The camera often appears weightless, drifting through the air and giving us the sense that we’re intruders in these people’s lives.

The problem is that documentaries tend to teach you things that you didn’t already know about a person. The Better Angels presents you with events but doesn’t explore them. And in the absence of any story or drama, all we’re really left with is a thin veneer of exploration, a beautiful yet hollow depiction of a point in time. You get the sense that Edwards wants his audience to make their own judgements and extrapolations from the data he’s collected. That would be fine but it leaves the film quite devoid of any personality, unfortunately accentuating its flaws when it so invites comparisons to the films of his mentor Malick.

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The Better Angels is by no means a bad film. It’s beguiling and strangely enthralling, yet never quite interesting enough to invest much thought into it. As a portrayal of a period of time, it’s well worth a watch. But there’s nothing to be learnt from watching it.

There’s no way to understand how the various tragedies that afflicted Lincoln’s childhood affected him, but if all you’re looking for is an independent observation of this period in his life, then this film serves its purpose.

The Better Angels screens today at 8:40PM

You can consult the full programme and buy tickets on the festival’s official website

The East End Film Festival runs until July 12th

Samuel Richardson