Fifty years on, Darling is a very different film to the modish, fashion conscious drama that so nakedly tried to seize the zeitgeist of the swinging 60s on first release. The height of style then, epitomised in Julie Christie’s restlessly shallow society woman, it quickly came to look outdated before re-emerging recently as an interesting historical record of a time that didn’t seem to know quite what it was.
Shot in soft black and white, the film never really gets under the surface of Christie’s Diana Scott, choosing to hold her at arm’s length. But this is also kind of the point as Darling exposes a lifestyle relentlessly lived in the moment at the expense of past and future. Aided by John Schlesinger’s vibrant, inventive direction, and Frederic Raphael’s sly screenplay, Diana becomes an effective vehicle to skate through the competing social factions of the time.
From the opening shot, the vapidity of her world is never in doubt. We see a giant blow-up of Diana’s face plastered onto a billboard previously carrying a poster for an international aid charity. Narrating her own story, Diana starts in London where she has an unremarkable modelling career and an immature husband (Trevor Bowen). A chance meeting with Robert, Dirk Bogarde’s intellectual arts interviewer, leads them into a relationship that breaks up both their marriages and thrusts her into the London media set.
The relationship with Robert is the only real one in the film. She moves onto a dalliance with a charmingly arrogant advertising executive (Laurence Harvey), and an Italian prince (José Luis de Vilallonga), both just tools to pass social comment. Robert is the same but Bogarde’s weary cynicism contrasts neatly with Christie’s high energy performance. A steaming row when he discovers her infidelity carries a powerful charge and in one brilliant scene late on he turns up at her door only to hear another man’s voice in the background. Face collapsing with understanding, he walks away.
Otherwise, the story is content to leave Diana straddling the worlds of staid intellectualism, the vacuous media set and aloof aristocrats, all of them vying for a piece of the pie in a fast changing world. This is made more effective by numerous little digs Raphael works into the screenplay. At a charity ball where a bunch of overdressed rich white people gorge themselves in the name of starving children, one winner of a trip to the Bahamas is heard to remark that she’s only just come back from there. Art critics are mocked in all their pretentiousness and the business elite are exposed as childish, hectoring bullies as well.
Still early in his career, Schlesinger mixes accomplishment with energy in his direction, throwing in freeze frames, zooms and gentle pans alongside startling imagery. One impressive scene tracks the passage of time by showcasing a changing series of shots of Diana and Robert’s mantelpiece, music gradually increasing in the background.
This is really Christie’s film though. She won an Academy Award for her fresh performance, managing to bring out Diana’s empty morality by burying her real emotions behind the façade of a hyperactive teenager. She’s an effortlessly cool, disconcertingly half-formed narrator who leaves enough contradictions to carry the film beyond its limitations.
Darling is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 30th March 2015 to celebrate the film’s 50th Anniversary. The Blu-ray disc also includes the original trailer.
Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey
Runtime: 128 mins