If David O. Russell’s new film was a Beatles song, it might well be ‘All You Need Is Love.’ That seems to be the message emanating from this all-star ensemble, a period comedy-drama that blends real-life but little-known political intrigue with a fictionalised story of the unbreakable bonds of friendship. Set primarily in 1933 in New York, the story circles around two American soldiers who fought together in the First World War.
Christian Bale, a Russell regular from The Fighter and American Hustle, plays Burt Berendsen, who left the war minus an eye and now works as a doctor, helping those with serious wounds. His friend from the army is lawyer Harold Woodman (Tenet star John David Washington), who recruits Burt to perform an autopsy on the body of a senator. The politician’s daughter (Taylor Swift, excellent) suspects foul play.
As the opening caption tells us, “A lot of this really happened”, with Russell’s script part-inspired by the so-called ‘Business Plot’, a real-life ruse to overthrow President Roosevelt. Initiated by a cabal of business tycoons desperate to instal a new leader more friendly to their economic needs, this idea of creating a regime akin to Mussolini or Hitler in America is unsettling. Characters are also drawn from history. Among the amalgams, Margot Robbie’s Valerie Voze, an eccentric artist inspired by the likes of Hannah Höch and Méret Oppenheim.
As we see in an extended flashback, Valerie first met Burt and Harold in a field hospital during WWI, when she was a nurse (and, on the side, made art from the shrapnel she pulled from wounded soldiers). The trio wind up in Amsterdam after the war, living the high life. Harold falls for Valerie, while Burt still holds a candle for his upwardly mobile wife (Andrea Riseborough), whose cold-hearted family had forced him to fight in the Great War. But all good things… as they say.
After a 15-year gap, Valerie returns to their lives, just as Burt and Harold are trying to unravel a conspiracy they’re swept up in. Robbie isn’t the only A-List support here, with a cast so good, it’s almost distracting. Chris Rock and Zoe Saldaña zoom past your eyes, followed by Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy, the latter in delicious form. Alessandro Nivola is hilarious as a dogged detective, while Mike Myers charms an English bird-watching spook. And just when you can’t take any more star wattage, Robert De Niro pops up as General Gil Dillenbeck, one of the film’s few moral compasses.
With voiceover narration and Daniel Pemberton’s score delicately waltzing around each other, Russell energetically pinballs you through his story, much in the way American Hustle did. There’s a dreamy elegance to Amsterdam, especially the costumes from J.R. Hawbaker (Robbie’s outfits alone are liable to start a retro-fashion craze). Matching this is Russell’s love-will-conquer-all sentiment. It’s not a naive film, but rather a hopeful one. Despite a world where darkness lurks, there’s light at the end of this tunnel.
- Director: David O. Russell
- Starring: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, Taylor Swift
- Release date: October 7 (in cinemas)