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Film review: Days of Heaven (4K re-release)

02 February 2024

Stephen Brown reviews the 4K restoration of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven

Richard Gere in Days of Heaven

Richard Gere in Days of Heaven

THE film Days of Heaven (Cert. 12A), first released in 1978, now comes to cinemas as a 4K restoration. The glorious cinematography of Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is by itself reason enough to book a seat, but that also goes for the film as a whole. It was Terrence Malick’s second picture after Badlands, signalling his determination to continue looking for Eden within our souls.

We, of course, now know much more of Malick’s search for this through a scattering of subsequent films. The Tree of Life (Arts, 22 July 2011) considers two ways forward: that of nature and that of grace. To The Wonder (Arts, 1 March 2013) is more preoccupied with the divine presence sleeping in each of us, whereas A Hidden Life (Arts, 17 January 2020) demonstrates Malick’s belief that, by harmonising with nature in all its beauty and terrifying demands, we can remain close to God even in the most demanding of circumstances.

Back to Days of Heaven: it’s 1916. A steelworker, Bill (Richard Gere), flees Chicago for Texas with his girlfriend, Abby (Brooke Adams), and teenage sister, Linda (Linda Manz), after killing an overbearing boss. They take work on a ranch. Beauty surrounds them. Keats-like, it is a form of truth, a key to a deeper understanding of our human existence. Yet these hints of heaven don’t prevent Malick’s characters’ floundering. They are strangers in paradise. A strong sense of alienation from our true roots informs the narrative.

The fugitives take scurrilous advantage of the ranch owner (Sam Shepard), who is dying. Tragedy is rampant, whether it’s by a plague of locusts blackening the sky or egregious acts of fallen humanity. The redeeming feature of the film is young Linda’s voiceover commentary. She hasn’t entirely lost an innocent perspective. Her take on how oddly adults behave is that it is born out of a need for rescue. Ennio Morricone’s plangent soundtrack echoes these wistful sentiments for a paradise lost. For Malick, the hope of heaven lies with those struggling, however feebly, to let celestial sunshine back into life.

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