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'Lincoln' review: "Daniel Day-Lewis looks set for Oscar glory"

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Released on Friday, Jan 25 2013

Director: Steven Spielberg; Screenwriters: Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin; Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee-Jones; Running time: 150 mins; Certificate: 12A


Steven Spielberg continues to be preoccupied with war and the fight for civil liberties, but this is the quietest of his recent films, with an equally unobtrusive, delicately-crafted, totally absorbing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States. It's the kind of turn that compels you to lean in and pay close attention, neatly defining the charisma of a born leader.

Even so, Lincoln looks weary in the final months of his life as he tries to broker peace with the rebel Southern states where slavery is integral to the economy. He believes it is now or never to try and pass a bill for the abolition of slavery, though the move was recently rejected by the House of Representatives and his staff worry that it may derail efforts to reach an accord with the South.

Physically, Lincoln is bowed over by the weight of his burden, but an iron will is also evident behind softly-spoken words, demonstrated very movingly in an early scene where he explains to his staff - in meticulous detail - why they must act, now.

What comes across here, and in other ways throughout the film, is that Lincoln is not an idealist as much as a pragmatist. Though he is sickened by the notion of people as property, he has 'confiscated' slaves according to that legal definition, but can find no other loopholes to keep from handing them back in peacetime. So begins the campaign to secure votes and change the law.

'Lincoln' still, Daniel Day-Lewis

Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Lincoln'



Tommy Lee Jones is his perfect foil as Republican radical Thaddeus Stevens, a sure vote for abolition, but not necessarily on Lincoln's side, because he will not compromise. He is a loud voice in the bear pit of congress, insisting that Negroes shouldn't just be free but have the vote too, scaring off undecided voters. He's also a dry wit, helping to lighten a sombre mood.

Dark smoky rooms are where most of the action happens, and apart from a few cutaways to the battlefield, that action is verbal. The gravity of the situation is palpable and Spielberg underlines it with handsome compositions that evoke the history paintings of John Trumbull or Howard Chandler Christy with roomfuls of extras deliberately poised around their leader, softly illuminated.

Lincoln's attempts to negotiate with his troubled wife Mary (Sally Field) find him less assured, particularly when it comes to keeping their wilful son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) off the battlefield. The situation is inflamed by the death of another child, years before, but Field always stays the right side of hysterical and in fact, shows great patience and dignity when it counts.

Inevitably, there are Spielbergian moments where zoom lens and orchestra collide to overpowering effect, but not many, perhaps because Tony Kushner's script (he also penned Munich) gives real texture and life to historical figures. As it happens, Lincoln was also a gifted storyteller and Spielberg trusts Day-Lewis to put that across without embellishment in scenes that are truly inspirational.

Oscars nominations 2013 in pictures:

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