The British New Wave of the late 50s and early 60s was a strange, fascinating and often frustrating period of cinema. Heavily influenced by the French New Wave but intertwined with the Angry Young Men, a group of politically-motivated and socially aware writers of the 50s, the British New Wave films largely focused on a realistic portrayal of working class life which had largely been missing from the breezy distractions that had previously dominated British cinema. Although it did much to help British cinema to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, the British New Wave was also often awkward and riddled with contradictions and hypocrisy. One need only look at Room at the Top, the film that is widely credited with kicking off the movement, in which plummy-voiced actors noticeably struggle with faltering Northern accents and manage to get themselves Oscar nominated in the process. In a film that deals directly with class issues, it’s an inescapably sour note to strike.
As it found its feet, the British New Wave grew stronger and directors began casting geographically appropriate actors such as Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the prominent working class roles. As this brief period reached its inevitable conclusion, it segued into the Swinging London films which brassily celebrated the emptiness and falseness that the original movement had sought to expose and push away, with results ranging from the brilliantly entertaining to the sickeningly vulgar. Caught somewhere between the two eras, John Schlesinger’s acclaimed Darling feels like a transitional film, using the conventions of the New Wave to examine the excesses of Swinging London.
John Schlesinger had been a prominent director of the New Wave and his previous film, Billy Liar, remains the most brilliant film of the era and one of the best films of the 60s. With Darling, Schlesinger manages to present an interesting viewpoint on the state of Britain at the time through the tale of Diana Scott, an impulsive, attractive and easily bored young woman who flits from place to place and man to man, finding herself quickly tiring of each of them and longing for whatever it is she hasn’t got. It terms of story that is about it and, while this needn’t have been a set-back (some of the best New Wave films are very slim on plot, increasing their realism and impact), Darling suffers from considerable overlength that seems unjustified by its relatively unsubtle and repetitive observations on the repugnant shallowness of Diana’s world. The Oscar winning screenplay has some nice dialogue and the structure, which sets out the tale in the context of a magazine interview given by Diana, helps to impose some shape on the wandering narrative. But unfortunately the characters themselves aren’t very well drawn. Even Julie Christie’s celebrated central performance (which won her a Best Actress Oscar) feels like a series of well-acted flourishes that don’t quite jigsaw-up into anything more substantial.
In the supporting roles it is Dirk Bogarde (so impressive in other British films of the era like The Servant and Victim) who most impresses, as TV reporter Robert Gold, the character who seems to be the most effected by the events of the film thanks to Bogarde’s expressive performance. But such is the emotional centre that Bogarde brings to Darling that the film becomes glacial and cold whenever he drops out of the narrative, as he does increasingly in the latter half. Here we frequently move away from London in favour of jet-setting trips to Paris and Italy. Schlesinger’s main triumph as director is in making all these locations seem equally empty and unfulfilling, their beauty drained away by the stark black and white imagery and Christie’s convincing emotional hollowness. But amidst these isolating settings the audience may find themselves increasingly detached themselves and as Diana begins to crumble it is harder and harder to empathise with her, not because she is wholly unsympathetic but because her predictable downwards spiral and repetitive actions have made Diana herself boring.
While it was highly acclaimed on its release, Darling has not aged particularly well. In its comparatively obvious commentary of shallowness, it is shackled to its era and yet Schlesinger has given it a look and feel that is more timeless than the material justifies. Therefore, we don’t even get a fascinating glimpse of the times as in most of the New Wave and Swinging London films (even the bad ones) but a stodgy confection concocted decades ago which still looks good on the surface but collapses into a grey, unappealing mess the moment we slice into it.
Darling is released by Studiocanal on DVD and Blu-ray on 30th March 2015. The only extra feature is the original trailer.