Special Feature: On style, taste and formalism

The director of a film is usually the person who is identified as the author (or auteur), because they decide primarily how the film should look. After all, film is a visual medium; the look of it is paramount. While some directors favour particularly noticeable techniques (the heightening artificiality of Todd Haynes, or the lengthy moving camera sequences of Paul Thomas Anderson), others prefer a much more straightforward shooting style.

Interestingly, the two front runners for the ‘Best Director’ Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards – David Fincher for The Social Network (2010) and Tom Hooper for the King’s Speech (2010) – fall into that secondary category (though Hooper’s victory at the annual DGA Awards was seen as an upset, and he has been openly criticised for the lack of visual storytelling in The King’s Speech).

Fincher, on the other hand, has occasionally detoured into formalism, but has always seemed to go back to simple, beautifully balanced compositions. The Social Network deserves to win ‘Best Picture’ at the Academy Awards, and his own BAFTA win was the very least that he deserved for his latest feature. The Social Network is a great example of a film that is splendidly put together without being excessively flashy or stylistic, and achieves an effect greater than the sum of its parts.

Fincher is also the prototype of the “tasteful” director (visually, at least; with Fight Club (1999), and moments of Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007), Fincher unflinchingly rides roughshod over what many commentators would consider “tasteful”). His takes in The Social Network are neither particularly long nor particularly short, and the magnificent cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer have room to flourish.

The film’s editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall also won a well-deserved BAFTA for their work on the film. Baxter has played some part in the editing of each of Fincher’s films since Zodiac, while Wall has been credited as part of Fincher’s editing department since Fight Club. They are both part of a well-oiled machine, of which Fincher is always in control.

Fincher’s latest critically acclaimed release also serves as the perfect counterpoint when addressing some problems I found with a recent release which simply fails to achieve what it sets out to.

Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), adapted by Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, is beautifully shot and brilliantly scored. It is above all, flawlessly acted, to the extent that a certain frustration develops as the film progresses; all the actors are clearly better than Garland’s script should allow, and they probably also know it. Garland probably knows it. The only person who does not seem to know this is Romanek himself.

Ishiguro’s novel is a heartbreaking science fiction tale set in an alternate UK. Protagonists Kathy, Tommy and Ruth go to school together, and know that they and their fellow pupils at Hailsham are different from most children. It’s one of the most powerful and moving books I’ve read in a long time, and I was very much looking forward to Romanek’s adaptation. However, Garland’s script makes some astute changes and condensations, but it also makes some unnecessary simplifications and condescension.

Such tinkering with the original text could be relegated to being a minor flaw in an otherwise great film on the strength of the performances by Carey Mulligan (as Kathy), Andrew Garfield (as Tommy) and Keira Knightley (as Ruth) – they really are that good. The trouble is however, Romanek does not seem have faith in his actors.

Reportedly, Romanek studied similiar examples both British and Japanese cinema (Ishiguro having been born in Japan before his parents moved to the UK) in preparation for Never Le Me Go. The film is peppered with moments of silence, stillness and empty frames; all reminders of transience. This is all well and good, but it provides an odd contrast with how Romanek delivers scenes of complex emotion.

It’s in moments of great emotional tension that Romanek suddenly feels the need to move things along hurriedly. Precisely in those moments, when talents as great as Mulligan and Garfield – and Knightley in a career best performance – should be able to spread their wings. Yet Romanek drops into the routine of shot-reverse-shots and arbitrary cuts that detract from the power of the lead performances.

Surely Romanek must have realised how adeptly these young actors were handling Garland’s uninspired screenplay during the editing process? Barney Pilling, Never Let Me Go’s head editor, had largely worked in television until the film’s release, whilst his work on 2009’s An Education was both unfussy and invisible. What this suggests to me is that Romanek’s intended aesthetic is one with which his editor was not familiar.

Romanek is guilty of avoiding precisely the kind of commitment to a coherent visual aesthetic that Fincher has adhered to in the past, sometimes even to the detriment of his pictures. Yet Fincher’s successes far outweigh his failures, something that Andrew Garfield may have realised for himself, having starred in both The Social Network and Never Let Me Go. One of the two is a great film that may be remembered in years to come as the magnum opus of a modern American master. The other film will likely be recounted as a missed opportunity, a good effort that could have been great.

Never Let Me Go’s photographic composition is stunning. But it’s into the joins between those frames that the effervescent, ephemeral quality of greatness slips, slowly draining away from the film.

David Sugarman