Abraham Lincoln famously quoted Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” when asked to describe his youth in Kentucky and Indiana: “The short and simple annals of the poor.”
Consequently, relatively little is known about the 16th president’s formative years, leaving an open canvas for filmmaker A.J. Edwards and his “The Better Angels,” a lyrical black-and-white interpretation of the period that’s shot and performed like a ballet through the wilderness.
It looks and feels like a Terence Malick picture, which comes as little surprise given that Edwards is a close collaborator of the auteur.
The actors don’t act so much as pantomime; the movie is filled with whispered declarations set against a black-and-white schema comprised of stark contrasts between light and dark and crisp woodland fog rising amid the rustling trees.
It’s beautiful, even moving, in scenes where the young Lincoln (Braydon Denney) picks up a book, attends some of his few weeks of formal schooling or connects in a deep, spiritual way with his mother (Brit Marling) and stepmother (Diane Kruger).
But “The Better Angels” comes across as more invested in imitating Malick than it is in truly illuminating the formative years of a great man.
Directed by A.J. Edwards | Starring Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley | Rated PG | Playing at Sunshine Cinema