2013’s big biopic disappointment

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Rush and Saving Mr Banks aside, 2013 proved the Hollywood biopic still has a long way to go.

Last week, I caught the premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, an epic biopic chronicling the life of the late Nelson Mandela and his ex-wife Winnie. The film begins during his time as a lawyer and ends soon after his release and the collapse of apartheid. I shan’t say any more about the story, but what I will say is the film suffers from pacing and narrative issues as it desperately attempts to cram in as much as possible. It appears others share my opinion of the solid central performances of Idris Elba and Naomie Harris and the film’s poor structure. This then got me to thinking about this year’s other biopics and the responses they received. Let’s just say it was the light Saving Mr Banks and Rush that reigned above all.

Saving Mr Banks and Rush reigned above all. Other biopics of 2013, by comparison, offered flat, forgettable experiences

If one were to view the trailer of Saving Mr Banks, one would expect a jovial, yet corny retelling of the making of the iconic Mary Poppins, with a star-studded cast and a studio glossing over Walt Disney’s darker side. It could easily have fallen to taking too many artistic liberties, have been tonally uneven or simply a flat experience. Rush could’ve been given the Hollywood Ron Howard make-over and left out much of the gritty detail of 1970s Formula 1 racing protocol, which, by today’s standards, can be interpreted as deplorable, but it was all there. It too could have been a forgettable, flat experience. But that, instead, what happened with the other biopics of 2013.

diana movie

Other strong biopic contenders this year included The Fifth Estate, about Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Diana, about the life of Princess Diana (Naomi Watts), but they shared similar problems to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. They had great performances but a lacklustre story.

The Fifth Estate, Diana and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shared similar problems: great performances, lacklustre story

Earlier in the year, I wrote an article defending Diana, commenting that much of the backlash was primarily due to her status and the subject matter it tackled, and saying the film had positive attributes many overlooked. The film took a risk, it was entertaining and one would remember it. However, having stated that, I’d be naïve to assume it was the biopic to define the late Princess Diana. It failed to capture the full gravitas of her affair and the enormous impact this undoubtedly had on Dr Hasnat Khan’s personal life. It, consequently, suffered from narrative issues. But, arguably, the worst of the lot was The Fifth Estate.

It may have had an uncanny central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch – he has the look, the mannerisms and the voice of Julian Assange – but it fell short at being either a truthful retelling of the events surrounding WikiLeaks’ origin and the US Government’s response to the footage leak, or as an exciting fictionalised thriller. It had no clear direction, cramming in everything and in doing so falling short. I would go as far as to say the second half felt more like a Guardian commercial than an exploration on the ethics of journalistic responsibilities; the film is undermined by the repetitive conflicts between Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and Julian Assange. Simply put, it was a major disappointment.

the fifth estate benedict cumberbatch

So, what did Saving Mr Banks and Rush do right? Most prominently, it’s the subject matter at hand. Other biopics released this year, alongside the aforementioned, had to depict character profiles with controversial backstories and make them applicable to the cinematic formula. They had to make bold decisions between fact and fiction, truth and entertainment, and because of their politically and socially charged status, this was going to be met with controversy.

What they unfortunately did – and this also includes Lovelace, about the Deep Throat phenomenon and the late Linda Lovelace, and Jobs, about Apple Inc. and the late Steve Jobs – was attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience; they simultaneously had gritty details and broad strokes. The two aren’t miscible and what’s left is an incoherent mess.

Biopics of 2013 simultaneously had gritty details and broad strokes. The two aren’t miscible

The politics of Saving Mr Banks and Rush were self-contained – Walt Disney wanted to get Mary Poppins made, so the film needn’t delve into the movie industry paradigm, and James Hunt’s career was centred around a bitter rivalry instead of the ethics of 1970s Formula 1 racing. Saving Mr Banks and Rush didn’t speak about their contemporary culture because the film was placed in that culture and depicted the era honestly, with contemporary sensibilities used to resonate with a modern audience. 2013 should have been a defining year in biopic cinema, considering the great Lincoln last year (as well as the questionable Argo), but it appears we have a long journey with regards to political biopics.


Featured image: The Weinstein Company

Inset images: Entertainment One; Disney

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