Bleak Swan

A Tale of Love and Darkness
(Israel/USA, 95 min.)
Written and directed by Natalie Portman
Starring: Natalie Portman, Amir Tessler, Gilad Kihana
Natalie Portman makes her feature directorial debut with the austere historical drama A Tale of Love and Darkness. This film shows ample promise for Portman as a director after testing her chops with a segment in the anthology film New York, I Love You. It’s a work of great passion and dedication. The Jerusalem-born Portman adapts the story of Amos Oz (Amir Tessler), a young man who witnesses the changes in Israel following the Second World War and as the British Mandate for Palestine widens the historic rift as the Jewish people win their own nation state. The subject matter alone is vast and ambitious for a first feature for anyone. The film is as far removed from a vanity project that a starlet like Portman can direct, as it is barren and bleak, but there’s no denying that this film is ultimately a star vehicle for a very talented actress.

The strength of Portman’s performance in A Tale of Love and Darkness is the real reason to see the film beyond any curiosity that her credit as a director could provoke. As the sullen and depressed Fania Oz, Amos’s mother who finds herself shell-shocked and unable to make sense of the world after she witnesses so much violence, Portman is intensely compelling. Her Fania is a walking, breathing ghost who haunts the film with the memory of souls lost to this chapter of history.

Where Portman is less successful is in the scripting. A Tale of Love and Darkness moves lethargically from episode of suffering to episode of suffering. The film doesn’t fully flesh out the motivations behind the characters’ declines and, in turn, strips their dimensions back a layer. Portman has the dramatic chops to compensate, as the Black Swan star clearly understands the tempest within Fania’s head, but the other players do not display the same grasp. Amos and his father (Gilad Kihana) are often blank, lifeless cogs in comparison to the emotional complexity of Portman’s performance.

A Tale of Love and Darkness, in a way, likens Portman’s feature directorial debut to Angelina Jolie and her first dramatic feature In the Land of Blood and Honey. Both films are bold and complicated portraits of national trauma and the directors largely succeed thanks to their personal interest with and relationships to the subjects. However, particularly like Jolie and her ravishingly mild misfire By the Sea does Portman find a fair comparison. Writing isn’t their forte, but acting and directing a film that draws on the power of a great screen performance certainly is. Both directors have a great eye for composition, space, and movement, plus a refreshing eagerness to tell challenging stories.

Portman’s effort behind the camera shows ample promise, though, for her sepia-toned, if dimly lit, view of Oz’s world evokes a desolate chapter of history. Despite the joy some characters exude in the film, darkness permeates the tale as one community exiles another so soon after surviving one of history’s worst chapters.

Portman doesn’t romanticise the period, and takes pains to honour the history and legacy of the characters. She shooting the film in Hebrew and inevitably cutting its commercial potential in the process, as the film shows the poverty, misery, and suffering that people like Fania endured as members of the Jewish diaspora tried to repair their lives. There are images of stirring beauty in the film—Portman and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak compose some powerful shots—and they’re all in the service of conveying the heartache and hopelessness that Amos sees in his mother’s pain.

The film moves fleetingly between past and present as Portman finds a timeless hunger and eternal melancholy to the land. It's a bleaker swan than one expects from Portman, but A Tale of Love and Darkness is hardly an ugly duckling as far as feature debuts goes. It's  tough, but promising tale.

A Tale of Love and Darkness opens in Toronto on Friday, August 26 at the Varsity.