Joe Wright: Auteur of awfulness

His films are overrated, overindulged, and dismal

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In the 2017 World War Two film Darkest Hour, there is a would-be showstopping scene towards the end. Winston Churchill has recently become Prime Minister, replacing Neville Chamberlain, but he is beset by a cabinet, led by the oleaginous Lord Halifax, who favour a course of appeasement towards Hitler and Nazi Germany. 

Churchill, portrayed under heavy make up and in a fat suit by Gary Oldman, heads to the London Underground to consult a conveniently racially, socially and sexually diverse group of Londoners about what should be done (“What is the matter? Have you never seen a prime minister ride the Underground before?”). 

Not so much style masquerading as substance as stupidity masquerading as profundity

One by one, the awestruck Londoners offer their unanimous counsel on what must be done. All declare that they will fight the fascists until the bitter end, and chant “Never!” when Churchill suggests that there might be the possibility of an advantageous peace deal with Hitler. 

The vignette then concludes with the Prime Minister reciting Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome”, and a black fellow passenger completing the quotation, as Churchill is moved to tears by the straightforward common sense and decency of his fellow passengers. 

It is one of the stupidest and most dishonest scenes in any major film in living memory. Not only does it bear no resemblance to historical fact, but it simplifies a complex political situation into a level of caricature that would not disgrace a children’s cartoon. 

The script, by Anthony McCarten, is of course to blame, but the scene, to say nothing of the film as a whole, is regrettably typical of its director Joe Wright: not so much style masquerading as substance as stupidity masquerading as profundity. 

Wright is still a relatively young man, not yet 50, and has been making films since his thirties. Beginning with a glum and dull take on Pride and Prejudice in 2005, he has managed to make two categories of motion picture: the overrated and the dismal. In the first category can be counted such films as his 2007 Ian McEwan adaptation Atonement, Darkest Hour and the 2013 Tolstoy travesty Anna Karenina. And in the latter are such out-and-out flops as The Soloist, Pan and The Woman in the Window. 

It takes skill, or at least good networking skills, to continue a career after what should be career-ending disasters, but Wright has managed to persuade Working Title Films to continue funding his pictures, presumably in the belief that he is an auteur who should be thus indulged. 

Now, he has come up with yet another would-be bright idea. Believing that Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac would be improved if it were given songs by the glum American indie band The National’s lead songwriters Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Wright’s latest film Cyrano stars Peter Dinklage as Rostand’s hero, and is based on a stage play by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt. 

Not to be upstaged in any contest of potential nepotism, Wright has cast his own partner Haley Bennett as Roxanne, the object of Cyrano’s unrequited affection, and has filmed the whole shebang in Sicily during the pandemic. In a recent interview, he described his intention as “to make something beautiful in the face of these fucking bleak circumstances” and described it as “certainly one of the best times of my life”.

While Wright was able to have a lavish Sicilian holiday with his beloved, and to make a new picture at the same time, there may be less appeal for the rest of us in his “reinvention” of Cyrano. 

It is unfortunate that its delayed release happens to coincide with a stage revival of the play in Britain, starring Wright’s Atonement star James McAvoy as Rostand’s hero. In the much-praised new adaptation by Martin Crimp, directed by Jamie Lloyd, Cyrano spits out epithets with the aggression and style of a grime artist. In Wright’s film, Dinklage sings doleful songs in a gravelly voice, like an even more lovesick Leonard Cohen. Ironically, the frilly, fussy film may be the more conservative of the two representations of the story. 

But if there is an abiding characteristic of Wright’s career, it is a near-heroic dedication to getting it wrong. It was not an inspired idea to take a faithful, witty Tom Stoppard adaptation of Anna Karenina and ruin it by yoking it to a poorly conceived meta-theatrical presentation of the story, just as his continued dedication to placing Keira Knightley in the lead roles of his films shows a loyally unwavering belief in her talent that many cinemagoers have long since ceased to share. 

And it was misconceived to believe that what people really wanted to see in a film about Peter Pan was an origin story about the friendship between Pan and James Hook, with the villainous Blackbeard camping it up on the sidelines. 

When Wright’s friend Tom Hooper came spectacularly unstuck with his terrifyingly unhinged version of Cats, it destroyed his career; he has not made a film since. Yet Wright seems to live a charmed life. 

He has directed many artistically and commercially unsuccessful pictures, most recently his version of AJ Finn’s novel The Woman In The Window, which came into difficulty when it transpired that “Finn”, a pseudonym for Daniel Mallory, had a Walter Mitty-like relationship with the truth in both his life and work. 

Might he not be persuaded to return to puppeteering?

After a chaotic post-production, the film’s cinematic release was scrapped and it crept onto Netflix. But Wright, who dismissed it as “the expression of a lot of anger”, was able to move onto his Sicilian jaunt without noticeable damage to his career.

Many more talented directors who have not been granted the indulgence that Wright enjoys have seen their careers crash and burn. Yet there is something about the ostentatious middlebrow pictures that Wright continues to inflict on audiences that presumably appeals to financiers. 

Never mind that many of his flourishes are simply misplaced or misconceived; the famous five-minute tracking shot of the Dunkirk evacuation in Atonement, for instance, replaces what should be growing tension with dramatic inertia. He has acquired a reputation, largely talked up by himself, of being little less than the new David Lean, and therefore given an indulgence that only true auteurs must be granted. 

However, I have another solution. Wright has made much of his humble (i.e non-public school and Oxbridge) background, the son of the proprietors of a puppet theatre in Islington. Might he not be persuaded to return to puppeteering, no doubt with his preferred star Knightley on hand to supply a variety of voices and gestures? 

Then he can indulge all of his grandiose flourishes to his heart’s content, albeit in miniature, and cinema audiences can be spared any more of his exercises in egomania. Let’s leave it to the puppets.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover