Film review: ‘A HIDDEN LIFE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Terence Mallick’s films can be difficult beasts. Long, visually sumptuous and often involving meditations on the place of humans in the natural environment and the cosmos, they are wondrous and mesmerising for some, painfully dull and pretentious for others. His latest film, the three-hour World War Two drama, A Hidden Life will probably only serve to divide those camps further. The film’s startling visual artistry and weighty themes will delight Mallick devotees but the ponderous pace and obtuse style may prove a chore for those who have previously struggled with his work.

Based on actual events, A Hidden Life is a story of resilience in the face of oppression and of an agonising moral dilemma. August Diehl plays farmer Franz Jägerstätter who lives a seemingly idyllic life with wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their young children in a rustic village at the foot of the Austrian alps. When Franz refuses to support the growing fervour for the Nazis that is infecting his village at the beginning of the Second World War, he and his family soon become outcasts. His subsequent refusal to join the army and pledge allegiance to Hitler sees him locked up in a hellish prison where he’s subjected to both physical and psychological abuse. It’s here he’s presented with a near impossible choice, sign a pledge of allegiance to Hitler and return to his family or face execution.

The parallels between Franz’ story and Christ are clear but thankfully not gratuitous, for example, he doesn’t adopt obvious Christ-like poses as so often happens in Hollywood films pursuing a similar theme. Here Franz’s (and Franziska’s) spiritual beliefs derive both from religious faith and through a connection to nature.

Malick has employed his typically impressionistic style with rapid cutting and an elliptical structure used to divide scenes into what feel like fragments of memory. He also uses his hallmark tracking shots that follow people through fields and fisheye lens shots of people communing with nature. Also, Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer capture the staggering grandeur of the Austrian Alps in some of the most stunning images ever witnessed on a movie screen. Malick also realistically depicts the harshness of farm life at the time as the family slash vast fields with sickles, haul back-breaking loads up steep hills and gouge at soil with their hands to plant crops.

Unfortunately, Mallick’s enigmatic style once again distances us from his characters making it hard to connect with them emotionally. Franz’s story is one of phenomenal courage but this is more a film of wondrous images than of visceral human drama. Within Malick’s dream-like world, Diehl does his best to believably depict an ordinary man prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to uphold a principle but his story is not as emotionally wrenching as it should have been. Valerie Pachner is exceptional, though, capturing both astonishing stoicism and the anguish of someone losing the person dearest to them.

A Hidden Life will be too long and esoteric to convert Malick non-believers and will leave many with mixed feelings. It’s an astonishing work of cinema artistry but a lost opportunity for a powerful human drama.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Terence Malick.

Release date: 30th Jan 2020.

Running time: 180 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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