I’ve written on this site for a little while now. I actually have written reviews for a good chunk of my life, and I contribute both film and music reviews to the Toronto E-Zine www.liveinlimbo.com for the past few years. Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to attend a few Toronto International Film Festival screenings, including A Tale of Love and Darkness. Because of this, I will post a review here for all of you to check out.
THERE WILL BE SPOILERS OF SOME SORT. I won’t give away specific details or give away the ending, but if you want to go in blindly, maybe avoid this.
Final Rating: 7.7/10
Natalie Portman has been in films her entire life. She has worked with some of the biggest directors, producers and fellow actors. Naturally, someone as experienced and as vocal as her was bound to sit behind the camera for once. Portman does so with the adaptation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, originally written by Amos Oz. This autobiographical story of Oz’s childhood in Jerusalem during the years where the origins of the state of Israel directly affected his family. It was a political story going into the preproduction room, and it was bound to be one of some sort once it was pasted onto the screen. Portman tried to avoid making a one sided film as much as possible, even though there are tiny cracks within the film that make it have an opinion. It was bound to happen, and it was Portman’s duty as a director to carry on Oz’s voice anyways.
What her role also required was for her to speak her own mind, and this is where her directing truly shines. Not only has she been an attentive actress- one of which has only gotten better and better as she has studied her contemporaries over the years-, she has been paying attention to directors she has worked with or has admired. Her sense of photography and poetic imagery is absolutely stunning. There was clearly a lot of work put into making this film an aesthetic experience, and it was absolutely necessary. The close ups, of which feel almost Bergman or Von Trier at times, are gorgeous. There are great examples of creative angling and panning here, too. When it comes to making moments, Portman does a stellar job.
When it comes to separating them, however, there may be a bit of work to do, and this is the film’s only real object of criticism. The less dramatic parts feel as though they are on the same level as the more intense moments, so these latter moments may not carry as big of a punch as intended. It is a short film too, clocking in at about an hour and a half, so perhaps a film with a bit of length to breath in more of this work both Oz and Portman have created would have definitely been appreciated. The balancing of the film isn’t a major distraction or worry, though, and for someone’s debut experience as a director, A Tale of Love and Darkness has a lot that it does well with.
The film relies on making young Amos’s understanding of the world come from his two parents, played by Portman herself and Gilad Kahana. All of the actors do a great job, but the strongest role of the film goes to Portman, who punches with one of her top performances to date. As she is the mother of this film, she is also the needle of the film’s compass. She leads the film through joy and through misery, as the entire movie clings to her sleeve as she tidies up or cleans. The story follows the mother into a state of depression and sickness that leaves its characters (and us) scared of moving on alone.
Through Portman’s vision, we have a moving depiction of maturity. We see a young boy wish for stories from his parents, and then see these stories take on a new light as his surroundings get worse and worse. He experiences hurt and danger, sacrifice and defeat, love and compassion. This clearly isn’t the entire childhood of Amos Oz, but instead the very moment his life changed. It was clearly a story that pushed Natalie Portman into wanting to make a film, and she has put a lot of passion into this project. A Tale of Love and Darkness is a great debut effort and a sign of things to come. Rarely is a debut film a director’s greatest success, so I cannot imagine where Portman can go from here. Where A Tale of Love and Darkness sits is possibly on the fence of whoever watches it. You may either see a film that has a purpose and doesn’t say enough, or you’ll see a story teller who tries to put into words all that they humanly can. I saw the latter, and I was moved. If you are a part of the former party, then that is understandable. The movie is worthy of Portman’s performance and directing alone, and its affect on you may end up being a bonus.
Here are some other reviews, with a bit of what other writers had to say about Natalie:
The direction is solid, and while various dream sequences and flashbacks are perhaps slightly overstylized, these are the traits of a first time feature filmmaker trying to create a work of distinction. Portman wants to articulate something beyond the ordinary, and while she hasn’t found it in this picture, perhaps there are lessons here to be learned before she mounts her next effort.
There are undoubtedly kinks to iron out – the film has a particular problem with pacing during a section that requires careful handling – but this is a handsome and assured feature and certainly suggests a bright future behind the camera for Portman, who also stars.
I can understand why this film got mixed-at-best reviews at Cannes. It’s a lot to process, and tries very hard to show both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a neutral, but sensitive manner. Yet, that’s what’s so great about Natalie’s vision – she’s a provocateur, too and talking about Israel isn’t necessarily polite conversation. Making a movie about its statehood is an even trickier challenge. Natalie succeeds in establishing this delicate balance, but it’s too faithful to its source material and not as universal as she had hoped it would be.
Natalie Portman’s debut film as a a writer-director, a Tale of Love and Darkness, is impressive and reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky, particularly the way Portman presents the dreams and fables her character, a mother from Poland who came to Israel during World War II. She delights in telling her child stories to teach and thrill him.
One area where Portman excels remarkably well is her ability to make the story seem like something told from Amos’s perspective.