The Unbearable Lightness of Being 1988 Adapted from the novel by Milan Kundera, directed and written by Philip Kaufman; co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere. Setting: The repression of art and intellectual life just prior to the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Characters: Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a successful surgeon, and bohemian photographer, Sabina (Lena Olin) are unpossessive lovers. When Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a waitress he meets at a spa, turns up at the doctor’s door, he lets her move in, then marries the young woman. At his request, Sabina teaches Tereza how to use a camera. Despite his new wife’s jealousy, the women become friends.
During the invasion, Tomas writes critical articles and Tereza takes dangerous political photos. The three flee to Switzerland. When Tomas continues unfaithful, Tereza moves back to Czechoslovakia. He follows and they’re reunited. Nothing in Warsaw can be resumed, however.
Tomas is blacklisted from practicing medicine, finds a menial job, and continues womanizing. Tereza unsuccessfully tries revenge. At last, they move to the countryside and seem happy. (Sabina moves to the U.S.) Sharp-edged impressions of social change and erotic encounters. Rent on Amazon Prime.
My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown 1989 Adapted from Christy Brown’s autobiography. Co-written and directed by Jim Sheridan. Irishman Christy Brown (Day-Lewis) was born with cerebral palsey to a working class family in 1932. He could only control his left foot, yet went on to be a writer and artist. Day-Lewis became intrigued with the project when he read the opening scene, which features Brown using his left foot to place a record on a player and then placing a needle onto it. Best Actor Academy Award. With Brenda Fricker (Best Supporting Actress), Hugh O’Connor, Fiona Shaw. Physical and emotional trials, unrequited love, societal prejudice; eventual productivity and connection. Painful but ultimately not a downer. Rent on Amazon Prime or Netflix.
The Last of the Mohicans 1992 Based on the book by James Fenimore Cooper and the 1936 adaptation. An historical drama set during the French and Indian War. Directed by Michael Mann. Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe. A British Army Major escorting two daughters of a colonel through Indian territory is lead into ambush. The party is rescued by Mohicans, including the chief’s adopted white son, Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), who escort those remaining to the fort. During their journey daughter Cora and Hawkeye are drawn to one another.
Betrayal, warring tribes, soldiers, murder, suicide. When captured, Hawkeye volunteers to be burned alive instead of Cora (the outsider), but someone else steps in. We never know what happens to Cora and Hawkeye except that they’re alive and together at the end. A great deal of attention is paid to authenticity. Only if you’re interested in the subject which subsumes any relationship plot. Rent on Amazon Prime or Netflix.
The Age of Innocence 1993 An adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, who also directed. Beautiful to look at, adroitly cast. Wealthy society lawyer, Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), is engaged to proper, young May Welland (Winona Ryder). Legally representing unconventional Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) who’s trying to extricate herself from her husband, he finds himself powerfully drawn to her beauty and singular character.
The Countess is at first ostracized, then gingerly welcomed to New York society. Archer and she travel in the same, gossip-prone circles. Some contact can’t be helped, some is arranged. The attorney becomes disillusioned with the surface nature of his intended marriage, but it’s Olenska who nobly backs away at the last minute. Still, opportunity exists should they both be sufficiently brave and willing to relocate.
Fighting his heart, Archer marries as expected. Years later, after May dies, his son convinces him to travel to Paris and arranges for them to meet the Countess. Though the young man pays a visit, Archer only gets as far as the street below. Heartbreaking. You may never get a better look at the ruling class and its enforced tradition in this era. Rent on Amazon Prime or Netflix.
Gangs of New York 2002 Inspired by Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz. The slums of Manhattan 1863. A long-running Catholic–Protestant feud erupts as Irish immigrants protest low wages caused by freed slaves and the threat of conscription. The leader of one gang is seen killing the leader of its rival by the man’s son who returns 16 years later intent on revenge.
Gang barbarity, city wide draft riots, and personal vendettas make this an enormously violent film. The film’s lead villain gets his comeuppance. Scorsese leaves us with a time lapse image of 140 years of Manhattan. Authenticity was paramount, especially in terms of dialects. For strong stomachs. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Lincoln 2012 Loosely based on Doris Kearn Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner who considered his subject “the greatest democratic leader in the world.”
Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln, winning his third Best Actor Oscar. With a particularly excellent Sally Field who campaigned for the role, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook. Focused on the last four months of Lincoln’s life and the abolition of slavery. Close-up view of the man, illuminating behind the scenes events, and Day-Lewis’ acting are cumulatively incredible. Engrossing. Lessons could be learned. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Phantom Thread 2018 Inspired by the English/American designer, Charles James. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis studied haute couture for this role, eventually making wife, Rebecca Miller, an ensemble.
London 1950s. Obsessive compulsive couturier, Reynolds Woodcock, (Day-Lewis) runs his home/atelier, in fact, life, with the help of exacting, devoted sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville- fabulous), a stand-in for his deceased mother. One day, he brings home young waitress, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), consumed by remaking her in his image. The girl is at first docile and flattered. She moves to his home – in a separate bedroom we infer he visits.
Reynolds becomes increasingly cruel to Alma. Cyril looks on, accustomed. Reaching her limit, his “muse” poisons the designer’s tea provoking a collapse and fever hallucinations of his mother. Alma takes care of him. When he revives, they marry, but the honeymoon period is short-lived. Told his work is out of date makes the tightly wound character desperate. Alma overhears his plans to break up with her and once again poisons him. Reynolds becomes completely dependent on her. She makes grandiose plans.
It was after this film that Day-Lewis declared his retirement, not for the first time, but sounding final. Inhabiting (which he does) this complex, mentally unbalanced/wretched soul would be enough to have any actor back off for awhile. One hopes that when the smoke clears…A fine look behind the scenes of haute couture. More than unpleasant to watch, however, and, curiously, the clothes are awful. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Top Bigstock photo: Daniel Day-Lewis, Steven Spielberg arrive at the Lincoln Premiere at the AFI Fest at Graumans Chinese Theater on November 8, 2012 in Los Angeles, CA