In Days of Heaven depth is sacrificed in favour of the mood

Days of Heaven (PG) Director Terrence Malick Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Minz and Robert J Wilke 1978 95 mins 3/5

�A few months ago, Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life was accidentally awarded a five-star review on this page. The intended rating was, in fact, *****/!!!!!! – an attempt to convey his unique and exasperating brand of visionary banality.

This month, the BFI is hosting a Malick season at the Southbank and the centre piece is a restored print of period drama Days Of Heaven. His second film, it has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful photographed ever.

The making of Days Of Heaven has all the trademarks of the Work Of Genius. Discarding the script, Malick shot for a year and was editing for two more.

What resulted has many of the trademarks of a very bad film. Individual shots don’t really fit together. So when two people are talking, and it cuts from one face to another, you can see that they are not in the same place at the same time. And it stars Richard Gere.

Gere is surpassingly bad. His character is marked by a sullen refusal to passively accept his circumstances. But he takes it so far that it becomes a sullen refusal to accept that he is merely a character in a film.

Gawping resentfully

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He gawps resentfully into the camera like he is either trying to outstare the audience or catch a glimpse of his reflection.

Malick has a thing for indulging handsome leading men with inappropriate hair, such as Sean Penn in The Thin Red Line or Colin Farrell in The New World, who prance through the deprivations of Guadalcanal or a starving settler camp with elaborately sculpted coiffeurs.

The story is a wisp of nothingness. Set just before the First World War, it has two lovers, Bill and Abby (Gere and Adams), who pose as brother and sister for no good reason, escaping from the urban hell to work on the harvest in the country.

When the wealthy landowner (Shepard) takes a shine to her, Bill encourages the relationship under the belief that he is dying.

During the shoot, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and later Haskell Wexler, did a large proportion of the filming during what is known as Magic Hour – that brief period before sunset when the light is at its most beautiful.

Pinched aesthetic

The effect is remarkable but it strikes me as a pinched aesthetic. Quite aside from the impracticality of only being able to film for maybe 20 minutes a day, there is something overly precious about a film where only the most beautiful and most perfect is tolerated.

All that effort has gone into a film which can only do one thing: everything is subservient to generating the mood. Never mind the quality, feel the wistful sense of timeless remorseless, relentless progress.