Film review: ‘MANK’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

David Fincher’s latest film Mank may be a little perplexing for those who don’t have an abiding love of movies, particularly the film often considered Hollywood’s finest, Citizen KaneMank depicts the period in the 1930’s in which renowned screenwriter and according to the film, gambling-addicted drunk, Herman J Mankiewicz aka Mank (Gary Oldman) toiled on the script for Kane as he lay bedridden following a car accident.  As he disgorges this labyrinthine tale of corruption and lost innocence, Mank reflects on his turbulent life in Hollywood and his moral and intellectual battles with its power-players Louis B Mayer, Irving Thalberg, William Randolph Hearst who was the inspiration for the demagogue Kane and of course, Orson Welles.  The film suggests that Mankiewicz largely wrote the screenplay himself and has never been given due credit, a claim, incidentally, that other Hollywood luminaries like Peter Bogdanovich have refuted.

With a multitude of references to literary greats like Shakespeare and Cervantes, Mank is a celebration of writing and storytelling with Mankiewicz its flawed hero.  Oldman gives one of his most memorable turns as the perpetually sozzled philosophical reprobate Mank who not only enrages Welles with his request for screen credit but in supporting the left-leaning California gubernatorial candidate with a classic old Hollywood name of Upton Sinclair, puts himself on a crash course with the right-wing MGM studio head, Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard).

While Oldman inhabits the role, his Mank is still a familiar figure, the sickly genius whose ill health is as much a symptom of the corrupt world with which he has made a Faustian deal as his self-destructive habits.  Also, like Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle, he’s an appealing archetype for males of a certain vintage, a debauched, physically unattractive middle-aged man whose wit, charm and moral conviction nonetheless make him a magnet for young attractive women.

In many ways, though, the film is as much about Hearst’s young mistress, Marion Davies, as it is about Mank. It’s her that Mank worries about offending with his Citizen Kane script.  Their quiet platonic moments as they stroll together through the grounds of Hearst’s bizarre and imposing San Simeon compound are captured with a warmth and sensitivity we don’t normally associate with the overtly masculine films of Fincher.  Ananda Seyfried lends Davies a charm, intelligence and sly wit that undercuts the bimbo gold-digger images which some tried to ascribe to her.  The performances throughout the film, which include Sam Troughton as an amusingly pompous John Houseman and Arliss Howard as a venomous but still insecure Louis B Mayer are mostly wonderful if noticeably stagey with each actor delivering lines more like a soliloquy than as parts of a conversation.

Shot in dazzling but eerie back and white by Gone Girl’s magnificently named cinematographer Eric Messerchmidt, Mank is visually mesmerising despite being a little artificial looking.  Mank has the unmistakable aroma of oscar bait – Hollywood loves being celebrated even if the spotlight is on its ugly underbelly and an even less discerning gambler than Mank wouldn’t bet against Oldman for the gold statue.  For those not seduced by tales of old Hollywood this may prove a bit a chore but film fans should find it at least a fascinating indulgence.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): David Fincher.

Release date: 19th Nov 2020.

Running time: 132 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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