Review: ‘Mank’ is a love letter to old Hollywood

The visual language of cinema has changed a lot since the first movies were produced, but one thing they retain is the ability to affect the people. Citizen Kane, widely regarded as one of –if not the– best films of all time, is a thinly veiled look at the life of William Randolph Hearst, and not a kind one.

The authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane has been a controversy for decades now. The story was initially conceived of by Welles and Herman Mankiewicz, but who wrote it? Welles? Mankiewicz? I don’t know the answer to this question but Mank, the latest film from David Fincher supposes that Mankiewicz wrote it nearly entirely, and tells the story of that man’s life during the time that he was writing it.

Is that accurate? I don’t know, but it makes for a hell of a story.

Borrowing heavily from the structure and look of Citizen Kane, the story follows Mankiewicz in the present (1940), bedridden after a car accident and sequestered away from Hollywood with a nurse (Monika Gossmann) and an assistant (Lily Collins), diligently working on the script for Kane. As he works, the story flashes back to his initial infatuation with –and acceptance into the circle of– William Randolph Hearst, and later to his falling out and disillusionment with the same.

The story itself, penned by David Fincher’s late father, Jack, is incredibly well constructed. There are no wasted moments; each flashback serves the present and illuminates the experiences that allegedly went into writing Citizen Kane. Jack Fincher clearly loved these characters, and that really shows through in the writing.

Similarly, David Fincher clearly loves this era of Hollywood. If it weren’t streaming in glorious 4K, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a picture from 1940. The black and white cinematography all perfectly mimics the styles of Mankiewicz Hollywood. The way the camera moves, the way the shots are composed, everything. Even the sound design mimics the hollow effect of old-timey mono sound, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a delightful homage as well.

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies / MANK

There are a few great performances to speak about too. Oldman is his usual reliable self as the more or less permanently drunk Mankiewicz. This is a character that isn’t easy to love, but Oldman makes him curmudgeonly loveable. A minor complaint is that Oldman is clearly too old for the part; Mankiewicz died a dozen years after 1940 at the age of 55, and Oldman is very clearly in his 60s. There are times the film asks you to believe that he and his wife are contemporaries, but Tuppence Middleton is in her early 30s, and the difference is stark.

Amanda Seyfried gives an incredible performance as Marion Davies. She has the old Hollywood swagger down, and the subtleties of her relationship with Hearst (Charles Dance) and friendship with Mankiewicz are incredible if you pay close attention to her body language.

Still, for a film that is so clearly a loving look back at its subject, it ended up leaving me a little wanting. Fincher’s style has been described as cold, an assessment I don’t always agree with, but this is one of those times where I wish the film had a warmth that it doesn’t. The connection for Fincher seems to be to the style rather than the story, a shame given that his own father wrote it.

But then again, what style. Mank is one of the best-looking films of this year, and if the various award shows shower it with statues, I will not be surprised. It’s also incredibly well-acted, and if it’s stars are also showered with statues, I won’t be surprised there either. This is definitely one you should not miss.

Mank will premiere worldwide on Netflix tomorrow, December 4th.


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