By 1965 Julie Christie was 24 and had starred in one BBC television series, A For Andromeda, and had roles in a handful of British films, the most notable being director John Schlesinger’s previous feature, Billy Liar. (1963) Darling was to make her a star, before her next film, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), made her a superstar. Schlesinger would then go on to direct Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) with Christie, itself receiving a cinema reissue in May.
Darling won Christie a Best Actress Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe, as well as acting awards from the National Review Board, the New York Film Critic Circle and others. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and won for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Frederic Raphael), as well as Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Julie Harris). At the BAFTAs the film additionally took awards for Best British Actor – Dirk Bogarde, as well as for B/W Art Direction (Ray Simm) and Best British Screenplay. At the Golden Globes Darling won Best English-Language Foreign Film. According to the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Darling was the Best Film of the year, and John Schlesinger the Best Director. At home the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain gave the film awards for both Best British Comedy Screenplay and Outstanding British Original Screenplay. As well as acclaim, Darling was a considerable commercial success, grossing $12 million against a budget of $400,000.
The story is simplicity itself; a beautiful young woman, Diana Scott (Christie) works her way through a succession of increasingly influential men until she finds herself an Italian prince. She recounts her progress in retrospect – she is being interviewed to coincide with a cover feature about herself in the latest issue of the magazine Ideal Woman – while the reality we see on screen contradicts the sanitised, self-promoting version the new Princess Diana offers to the media.
This Diana is a vacuous young woman, never demonstrating any serious talent or interest beyond self-advancement. She is 50% responsible for breaking up the marriage of a TV arts documentary maker and writer Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde) – something of a Melvin Bragg figure (Schlesinger himself directed several episodes of the BBC’s Monitor, forerunner of programmes such as Omnibus and The South Bank Show) – but later tips a shelf worth of books onto the floor, saying she hates books. Later, to the press, she will falsely claim friendship with a venerable writer. She doesn’t appear to have an idea in her head, or to believe in anything – we see her in a Catholic church in Italy, attempting to pray then leaving, a part Christie would echo in Don’t Look Now (1973) – and while on holiday with a gay friend, Malcolm (Ronald Curram) says she wished that they could live there forever as brother and sister. She claims she could live without sex. That she doesn’t even like it very much. Her real desire is to be complete. In this sense she is the female opposite, in all senses, of Michael Caine’s Alfie (1966), who definitely did like sex. Diana just uses it to get what she wants, then finds that nothing, no amount of excess, sex parties, increasingly rich and powerful men, fill the void she can barely even articulate.
To anyone who knows some Hollywood history it will be clear that Diana Scott’s story was in part inspired by that of Grace Kelly, both women using their beauty and sexuality to rise through the worlds of modelling to the silver screen (though Scott’s career is a farcical shadow of Kelly’s) to royalty; Darling’s Italian Prince Cesare della Romita (José Luis de Vilallonga) being based on the real life Prince Rainier of Monaco, whom Kelly married in 1956. Incidentally, the Prince tells Diana that his first wife died in a car crash, just as the real Princess Grace would do 17 years after Darling was made, and as another Princess Diana would 32 years later.
From the opening credits – an advert for Ideal Woman featuring Diana being plastered onto a billboard over a charity appeal to aid the starving in Africa – Darling is unrelenting in its acidic assault on the world of celebrity, money and glamour. A raffle at a charity fundraiser, again for the starving in Africa, presents as one of its prizes a holiday in the Bahamas. The woman who wins says, ‘But I’ve just come back!’ Others present are dripping jewels and gorging on luxury foods – later Diana will delight in stealing pears in brandy and escallops from Fortnum and Mason. The fundraiser has black serving boys in attendance – in one aside, perhaps more shocking now than then – a man says to a companion that he wouldn’t mind having one of the boys wrapped to take home with him.
And therein lies the problem, if a problem it is. There is barely a character in the film, other than the elderly writer, Matthew Southgate (Hugo Dyson), who is at all likeable. And Dyson’s part amounts to a one scene cameo so small that he is not even credited. Otherwise Darling is a parade of the pretentious, the debauched and the avaricious, relentlessly, savagely skewered. The Prince himself seems decent enough, but is barely in the film. It says something that the closest Darling has to a halfway decent major character is Robert Gold, who exposes Scott’s unthinking conformity in his initial encounter with her, a conformity she thinks of as defying convention because she is so fashionably modern, but who himself wrecks his own family before ultimately extracting a coldhearted revenge on Scott by playing her at her own game. Two hours with such people is something of an endurance test, but it is all so well written and performed – of course the performances are fine, this is a film starring Dirk Bogarde, Julie Christie and Lawrence Harvey – that on one level it is quite refreshing. Especially in an age when BAFTA and Oscar winners hark back to the same period as Darling was made but deliver rose-tinted heritage cinema biopics instead of elegantly refined scorn.
There have always been Diana Scotts. She is a modern Becky Sharp, the film a new Vanity Fair. Or as a much older book has it, there is nothing new under the sun. On her next film Christie would still be entangled with a married man, a bloody revolution failing to make a brave new world from an even more invidiously corrupt society.
I was sent a check disc to review, so I am unable to say if the finished product will offer a booklet with supporting material, but the disc itself, despite being described as a 50th Anniversary Edition is essentially a catalogue title, the only extra being the original UK trailer. Darling itself is presented in its original 1.66-1 aspect ratio, with a few shots which have been variously censored on one side of the Atlantic or other all restored.
The print itself is in generally good condition, showcasing Kenneth Higgins’ B/W cinematography to good effect, but it is clear there has been no restoration work done, as evidenced by several instances of vertical lines of damage dancing across the full height of the screen at several points in the film. This happens no more than a handful of times, for a few seconds or so each time, but it is briefly distracting and it is a shame no restoration has been undertaken. There is the usual grain one would expect for a 50 year old film. In short, Darling on Blu-ray looks, bar some mild damage, like it should.
Darling is released as part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics Collection on Blu-ray and DVD on 30 March.