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Movies: 'Lincoln,' 'The Sessions' & 'A Royal Affair'

Updated 6:23 pm, Saturday, November 24, 2012
  • "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis, is now playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis, is now playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"LINCOLN"

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. That's not part of Steven Spielberg's epic historical drama, but adds to the timeliness of its release.

Opening with scenes of Civil War carnage, reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan," this is a cinematic chronicle of the last months in the life of the 16th president of the United States. Based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," Tony Kushner's sensitive, compelling script concentrates on Lincoln's determination to unite the divided nation and to convince rowdy, cantankerous curmudgeons in the House of Representatives of the necessity of passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would permanently abolish slavery. Willing to offer bribery and patronage, Lincoln was a shrewd genius of complicated political strategy.

In the title role, Daniel Day-Lewis is conflicted, yet canny and commanding. Not only is the physical resemblance convincing, including the stooped posture, but Day-Lewis also alters his normal baritone to speak in a lighter, warmer tenor voice, appropriate for the witty quips and folksy storytelling of an engaging raconteur. Authoritative and paternal, this is the finest performance you will see all year, equal to and perhaps surpassing his Oscar-winning "My Left Foot" and "There Will Be Blood."

Spielberg's choices are impeccable. Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones embody distraught Mary Todd Lincoln and crusading Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Memorable in the ensemble are David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader.

The production values are impressive, particularly Spielberg's subtle use of chiaroscuro lighting, adding to period authenticity. He introduces Mary Todd Lincoln as seen through a mirror, indicating the emotional divide between her and her husband. And that's just one of his astute directorial touches. The rest of his technical team includes cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Lincoln" is a superlative, spellbinding 10. This surprisingly relevant observation on the essence of leadership is, undoubtedly, one of the best pictures of the year.

"THE SESSIONS"

Paralyzed by polio, Berkeley, Calif.-based journalist and poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) spends most of his life confined in an iron lung. But when he's assigned to do an article on sex and the disabled, he realizes that -- at age 38 -- it's time to lose his virginity. But how?

Mark's first thought is to consult his new parish priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy), who decides that, in this particular instance, Jesus would probably give Mark a "pass" for sex without wedlock. At the suggestion of a therapist, Mark then enlists the services of a certified sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), who assures him they'll begin with "body awareness exercises."

Although Mark's muscles have atrophied, he can feel the sensation of touch on all parts of his body. Cheryl explains that the difference between her work and that of a prostitute is, while the latter wants return business, she will only commit to six sessions. Given that understanding, their friendship blossoms and grows into true intimacy.

Although he's immobile, Mark is blessed with a perceptive mind and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor. When he's asked if he believes in God, he answers in the affirmative, explaining, "I would find it absolutely intolerable not to have someone to blame for all this."

Based on O'Brien's article, "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate," published in "The Sun," the inspiring, touchingly optimistic script was written and directed by Ben Lewin, a 66-year-old polio survivor who walks using braces.

Despite full frontal nudity, there's no obscenity. What's astonishing are the perceptive performances. Back from her self-imposed screen hiatus, Hunt (Oscar-winner for "As Good As It Gets") exudes unwavering integrity. Hawkes (Oscar-nominated for "Winter's Bone") never falters or rings false, while Macy exudes kindness and humanity. Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood and Robin Weigart deliver memorable support.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Sessions" is a compassionate 7. Rated R, it's an adult film that approaches the serious subject of sex with refreshingly explicit honesty.

"A ROYAL AFFAIR"

Most Americans know little about Scandinavian history, so the name Johann Friedrich Struensee is unfamiliar. But the Danes credit this idealistic 18th-century German physician for bringing policies of Enlightenment to their country, eventually leading to the Age of Reason.

In 1766, a naïve, 15-year-old British princess Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander), a sister of King George III, is betrothed to her cousin, the King of Denmark. When she arrives in Copenhagen, Caroline discovers to her dismay that His Majesty Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) is an infantile idiot, devoted only to his enormous dog.

The tortuous tedium of her lonely palace life is only relieved when ambitious, intelligent Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is recruited by the nobility to accompany her volatile, mentally unbalanced husband on a European tour. Returning to the Danish court as royal doctor, tutor and adviser, Struensee not only introduces a set of radical socio-political reforms, including inoculation against smallpox and the repeal of censorship, that infuriate the elitist, faith-based ruling council. But he also indulges in a dangerous extramarital relationship with the queen.

This treasonous betrayal doesn't escape the notice of Dowager Queen Juliane (Trine Dyrholm), who is determined to usurp the throne for her own son (William Johnk Nielsen).

Based on historical fact, it's co-scripted by Rasmus Heisterberg and director Nikolaj Arcel with sumptuously cinematography by Rasmus Videbaek. It's elevated above the usual costume drama by the naturalistic performances.

Best known to American audiences for villainous roles in "Casino Royale" and "Clash of the Titans," Mads Mikkelsen embodies a dour, yet compelling force, warned but unheeding of the fabled lesson learned by Lancelot and Guinevere in Camelot. Mikkel Boe Folsgaard brings pathetic anguish to impulsive Christian and Alicia Vikander's plight is heartbreaking.

What emerges is a classic, if overlong tragedy, clocking in at 2 hours, 18 minutes.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "A Royal Affair," in Danish with English subtitles, is an epic, intriguing 8, a cautionary tale that emerges as one of the best foreign films of the year.