What is wrong with Stephen Daldry? Well, not much, so it seems. For every one of the first three films he made in his career – Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002) and this year’s The Reader – Daldry got himself Oscar nominated for his directing achievements. Well, obviously one couldn’t blame him for that. Or perhaps one could; apparently, Daldry manages to make films that suit the Academy’s preferences. While Billy Elliot was a refreshing, vibrant and delightfully British working class fairy tale, Daldry soon moved over to more heavy-handed subjects. Unfortunately, our dear Stephen got himself slipping to the ‘dark side’. As a Belgian reviewer put it: Daldry has become the spokesman for the ‘middlebrow film‘, a euphemism for so-called ‘intellectual’ but eventually hollow and meaningless films for the masses.
In 2002, Daldry plunged himself for the first time into the pool of depressive quasi-intellectualism with The Hours, an adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham, based on Virginia Woolf’s classic contribution to anglophone literature Mrs. Dalloway. In this film, Daldry and his scenarist David Hare connected three stories of three women in three different time zones and worlds, to create some sort of universal message about the struggles of a woman in her fourties. Conclusion: they’d all like to kill themselves.
To visualize this tragic theme, Daldry held a lot of trumps. He let Nicole Kidman wear a fake nose (which won her a Best Actress Oscar), he asked Philip Glass to compose his most bombastic and tadadam-like of scores, and he had tearjerkers Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore to gaze tormentedly out of windows. They all express the loneliness and distractedness of a woman when she isn’t busy doing what she’s meant to do. Although they are not slaves of the men they’re living with, they turn out to be slaves of themselves, subjects of their own insecurity and confusion.
And to symbolize the universal unescapability of this bewildered state of mind, Daldry juxtaposes three narratives – the first concerning novelist Virginia Woolf (Kidman) who tries to drown herself in 1941, and meanwhile her writing on her novel Mrs. Dalloway in London in 1923; the second revolving around Californian housewife Laura Brown in 1951, reading Mrs. Dalloway to escape her dreary suburban existence; and the third regarding lesbian book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Streep) in 2001, trying to host a career achievement party for her dear friend Richard, who’s dying of AIDS…
…well, one can imagine how jolly these 113 minutes must be.
Things couldn’t possibly get any more suffocating, when Daldry decided to adapt Bernhard Schlink’s classic novel Der Vorleser (The Reader) to the screen. Again, Daldry enlisted the services of screenwriter David Hare to translate the German prose into a plot suitable for the screen. From the first, they didn’t have to worry about the Academy’s acknowledgement, because the original story contained all of the elements on Oscar’s list of favorites: Holocaust, secrets, love affairs, analphabetism, atonement, guilt, and a decade-spanning romance. But, just to be sure, they added a whole range of “Oscar’s Sweethearts”, among others Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Deakins (cinematographer, No Country For Old Men), Claire Simpson (editor, Platoon) and Brigitte Broch (production designer, Moulin Rouge!).
The sum of these parts is an extremely middlebrow Schauspiel. On a two hour stretch, we are confronted with a) Kate Winslet doing a German accent, appearing fully naked on camera and wearing wigs that make her ugly, b) asphyxiating questions concerning guilt and power in World War II, c) a lot of tear stained eyes gazing across the water or through the spines of a prison cell, d) the frustrating concept of someone withholding crucial but secret information.
In the end, The Reader turns out to be even more disappointing than The Hours. Somewhere hidden in that latter film, there was a core of real tragedy, a sense of empathy, a heart – perhaps the last remains of the Stephen Daldry that directed the enchanting Billy Elliot. The Reader lacks this pathos fully. It simply doesn’t matter what happens to the characters; Daldry aims at the mind, not the heart. Therefore, The Reader does not manage to move or graps its audience. It is to cerebral for that purpose.
Daldry’s attempts to ‘intellectualize’ the popular film resulted in cold-blooded, heartless, aloof films. The largest issue here is the fact that the Academy continues to praise Daldry’s efforts. Therefore it doesn’t seem likely that Daldry will adopt another course. In fact, according to IMDb Daldry’s working on a film called Hellfire Club – which reminds us of the elitarian clubs for ‘intellectuals’ that existed in the 18th century, so-called “meeting places of persons of quality”. Their motto, Fais ce que tu voudras (Do what thou wilt), is apparently not understood by Daldry – I think he knóws he wants to do something else. But now, he’s doing this period piece on the same boringly pseudo-intellectual themes that The Hours and The Reader ventilated.
Has all film magic, so abundantly present in Billy Elliot, disappeared from Daldry’s films? No, not fully. Daldry has the great advance that he can make use of some of the most talented actresses in modern day cinema: the ever intriguing and electrifying screen presence of Julianne Moore in The Hours, and the phenomenal personifications of the radiant Kate Winslet in The Reader. There’s some magic to be felt when these formidable actresses stare into the camera. The true intellect is hidden in their eyes. Those beautiful eyes containing all the things the film should have been.
O, it’s always about the eyes…