Directed By: John Schlesinger
Written By: Frederic Raphael
Starring: Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey, Dirk Bogarde
John Schlesinger’s Darling offers a complete departure from its competitors in the Oscar race of 1966. Where The Sound of Music had sentimentality, Darling has cynicism. Where A Thousand Clowns had affection, Darling has callousness, and where Doctor Zhivago made its play at romance, Darling opts for the hollow.
The “darling” referred to in the title is Diana Scott (Julie Christie), a young, beautiful model with aspirations of becoming an actress and more importantly a coveted member of Britain’s high society. Immersing herself in the swinging 60’s promiscuousness of London and the decadence of the rich, Diana feverishly attempts to ascend the social ladder with her sexuality as her key device, becoming entwined with a T.V writer, an advertising executive, and an Italian Prince while her husband, apparently too immature to sustain a relationship, is relegated to the background. It is fitting that a character who so readily reduces herself to an object in her pursuits is so often assigned a name that renders her indiscernible.
This film is a scathing one. Despite the superficial appeal of Julie Christie’s character and the lifestyle she strives for, the film’s affection for its central character and her surroundings stops there. Instead what Schlesinger and writer Frederic Raphael (who won an Oscar for his screenplay) strive to do is capture the vacuity of a person who has eyes only for the top rung of the social ladder and the indulgent, ignorant mindset which characterises the folk who stand atop it. Darling is utterly unromantic, utterly contemptuous, and makes no attempt to arrest the sympathies, leading it to be both hugely effective in its messages but, by its conclusion, tiresome.
Schlesinger made his directorial name in documentaries, something reflected both in the mechanics of the film and in his ability to get to the truth of his characters. As we see her escapades unfold on screen, Diana Scott offers her opinions on her relationships in the form of answers to interview questions, setting the tone for a screenplay loaded with dramatic irony that is complimented perfectly by the transparency Schlesinger brings to the characters. One can see right through Diana, and we’re all invited in on the joke that is her pathetic behavioural justifications and amoral clamouring for status. In one scene we are taken inside a charity event for world hunger which is celebrated so decadently and indulgently by Diana and her high societal companions, complete with young African waiters, that it would be hilarious if the immorality and self-congratulatory quality of it wasn’t so hard to stomach. Much credit should also be given to Christie, who won an Oscar for her work here, perfectly capturing the pettiness and desperation of her character but also bringing such a vehement belief in her own victimisation, enticing viewers to slowly shake their heads in a begrudging pity.
With its amorality and extravagance, this film is so full of repugnant behaviour that as a character assessment it is potent, but as a story it grows hard to immerse yourself in. The simple truth of it is these people don’t make for very good company. The characters and their lifestyles are so ugly and detestable that even Robert Gold (well played by Dirk Bogarde), who begins genuinely affectionate for Diana, succumbs to bitterness and hatred before falling into the unredeemable. Perhaps a greater comedic flare, or something with which one could attach their sympathies, would be effective in offsetting the deliberate hideousness of the film’s other features, but as it is at two hours and eight minutes, Darling occasionally slips into becoming a weary indictment, albeit an amazingly effective one.