Title: Knight Of Cups
Director: Terrence Malick
Major Players: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman
Out Of Five: 2.5
The past few years have been unusually productive for Terrence Malick. After his much-publicised 20 year gap between Days Of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), he’s churned out four films and has another set for release this year. By his standards, that’s a lot.
He still takes his time, though, spending two years editing his latest, Knight Of Cups, the reflections of a Hollywood screenwriter (played by Christian Bale) on his life. And that’s as much as you can expect as far as the story is concerned. This is a film that was made more or less without a script, with all the scenes improvised: Bale has been reported as saying that, at the start of each day’s shoot, he never knew what was going to happen to his character and that Malick never told his cast what the film was about.
He’s not told the audience either, and with so many potential themes floating around, he doesn’t exactly make it easy to work it out. The opening words about the prince searching for the pearl, coupled with John Gielgud reading from Pilgrim’s Progress, come closest to the heart of it, but you never really know for sure. Is it about artifice and superficiality? The world inhabited by Bale’s writer is pure Hollywood – endless parties, drink, drugs, fabulously opulent houses and impossibly thin and beautiful women. Is it about self-knowledge? “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know” he says to himself, in a very unimprovised way. Not that he seems especially able to figure himself out, preferring to see himself through the eyes of the women who, incomprehensibly, fall for him. Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Freida Pinto are among them, but it’s only Blanchett that seems to have any grounding in reality, working as a doctor among the homeless and horribly injured.
And the questions continue. There’s his relationship with his brother (Wes Bentley) and volatile elderly father (Brian Dennehy) and its effect on his life. Is Bale having a breakdown? And on and on, right to the end of the film.
Do we care? Not much. Malick’s given his characters next to nothing in the way of dialogue and, when we see them speaking to each other, we never hear them. There’s always a whispered voiceover in the way, so what we’re watching are just figures on the screen and we never get to know them. Worse still, Malick’s approach makes his A list cast more or less superfluous. The film could easily have been made using voiceovers and visuals – Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography is absolutely stunning – and it probably would have been a more interesting and less frustrating experience.
But it is what it is. Over-long, tedious, dull at times and with just an underlying hint of self-indulgence. All of which makes it hard work to watch. And it simply isn’t worth it.
Knight of Cups is released in cinemas on Friday, 6 May and is reviewed on Talking Pictures, Thursday, 5 May.