Film Review: Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a sumptuous picture that offers the director’s trademarks. Days of Heaven is exquisitely filmed, and absorbing throughout.

After losing his job in Chicago, Bill travels with his young sister Linda and his partner Abby (who poses as his sister) in search of work. The group manage to find work on a farm in Texas, which is owned by a wealthy gentleman. When Bill finds out that the farmer is ill, he convinces Abby to marry him so that they can benefit from his fortune…

Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Days of Heaven submerges the viewer fully into the period. The film appears utterly authentic in its setting. There is a curious mix of picturesque scenery and a grubbiness of reality. This is particularly true of the beginning of the film, as Bill works on an industrial site. The scene is grim with its dirt, yet it is still beautifully shot, testament to Malick’s attention to detail.

Days of Heaven features a story that has been told before, and since. Notwithstanding, the film stands out amongst its peers thanks to Malick’s superb execution. For example, the narration works well, owing in part to the choice of narrator. The decision to opt for a objective character to narrate gives the film a sense of balance. Although some of the characters have more questionable morals than others, but the filmmaker does not make strong judgements regarding this. Furthermore, there is an innocence to Linda’s narration that is endearing.

Days of Heaven has a timeless quality. This is in part due to the period setting. More critical than this, however, is the fact that nothing really ties the film to the late 1970s period it was produced in. The only thing that indicates the background of the 1978 film is the age of star Richard Gere. And in spite of the early twentieth-century setting, the themes are universal. This is particularly true of the observations on the rich and poor.

The film’s visuals are faultless. Malick engulfs his viewers in natural surroundings. Nature is so key to the film, which is depicted in part through the amazing microscopic shots. The imagery overall is fantastic, with the photography, lighting and art direction combining well. The beauty of the fields is contrasted effectively with later night scenes, which are striking in their use of colour and light.

Performances in Days of Heaven are also great. Sam Shepard stands out as the farmer, giving a suitably restrained performance. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams give solid performances as Bill and Abby, while Linda Manz also shines.

Days of Heaven is being screened at the British Film Institute from 2nd September 2011 as part of the Terrence Malick season, as well as selected venues across the UK. 

Film Review: West is West

A suitable sequel to 1999’s East is East, West is West offers the same mix of comedy and drama as its predecessor. Largely, the film offers the same strengths as the original, but also the same weaknesses.

Sajid Khan is being bullied at school because of his Pakistani heritage, and has a strained relationship with his father George. After Sajid is caught shoplifting, George and his wife Ella decide that their son should go to Pakistan to learn more about his background. Father and son depart, with George having to face the first wife he left behind thirty years ago…

Set five years after the first film, West is West concentrates on the relationship between George and his youngest son. Andy DeEmmony’s film focuses on the same culture clash issues as East is East. On this occasion, however, it is Sajid who suffers from culture shock as he visits the alien land of Pakistan. Identifying himself as British, the customs and environment of the country are at odds with Sajid’s lifestyle in Salford.

While there are a few good jokes, there is less humour in West is West than its predecessor. In the same way that East is East would switch quickly from comedy to moments of stark seriousness, West is West opts for this tactic, but with more drama than humour. Overall this works fine, with the exception of a few scenes that drag. As Sajid explores the temple ruins, for example, the pace drops noticeably.

Conspicuously absent from West is West is any religious sentiment. This is palpable, given the emphasis on Islam in East is East. Perhaps wishing to side step a hot topic, writer Ayub Khan-Din focuses on cultural rather than religious differences to drive the narrative. In one sense, it is a shame than the religion issue is sidestepped; West is West could have been a film concerning Islam but not extremism – a rarity in recent cinema.

Casting is good overall, with both Om Puri and Linda Bassett offering strong dramatic performances as George and Ella Khan. George is a character who develops considerably (compared with East is East), and Puri’s performance reflects this. Aquib Khan is suitably boisterous as Sajid, although he reveals little more than this one dimension. Lesley Nicol adds lightness to the often serious tone of West is West as Annie. Jimi Mistry and Emil Marwa reprise their roles as Sajid’s older brothers, but the other siblings from the first film are barely mentioned.

West is West adequately continues the themes laid out in the first film, offering a more comfortable conclusion than the 1999 film. Like its predecessor, the sudden switch from humour to drama can be jarring at times. Nevertheless, fans of the original are unlikely to be disappointed.