When looking at the works of Joe Wright on paper, one probably assumes he is the British filmmaker making staid, awards-friendly period dramas. In some respect, that is true, as a number of films have been recognized by the Oscars, from a Best Actor win for Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour to a myriad of costume and production design nominations across his filmography. In execution, however, Wright stands as one more the audacious, ostentatious filmmakers making films for adults. He is someone who loves a swirling, elaborate Steadicam long take, embracing theatrical techniques and artifice, and is not afraid to turn the melodrama of the material up to eleven.
This winter sees the release of Wright’s latest film Cyrano, a musical adaptation of the classic play Edmond Rostand, starring Peter Dinklage in the title role alongside Haley Bennett and Kelvin Harrison Jr. For someone who makes such opulent films, it was only a matter of time before Wright ended up making a full-fledged movie musical, particularly since he has used elements of the form in some of his previous works. Before the release of Cyrano, let us look back at Wright’s career with a ranking of his eight feature films.
8. The Soloist (2009)
The Soloist was originally positioned as the capper to the tremendous comeback year for Robert Downey Jr. in 2008. He began his tenure as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film in May, and three months later, the blockbuster comedy Tropic Thunder was released, with him earning an Oscar nomination for a role that continues to make people’s eyebrows raise due to its use of blackface. Tropic Thunder, originally, was not the Oscar play. That was supposed to be The Soloist, the based-on-a-true-friendship story of LA Times reporter Steve Lopez (Downey) and houseless musical prodigy Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx). However, the film was eventually pushed until April 2009, removing it completely from the Oscar conversation. And with good reason. The Soloist indulges in all the worst instincts a story like this could produce. Wright works best in archetypal storytelling, but exploring the realities of the houseless in Los Angeles and the day-to-day struggles of mental illness do not mix well at all with Wright’s predisposition for grand stylization. Everything comes off as unnecessarily saccharine and hollow, featuring the always unwelcome trope of a magical Black man enriching the mind of a white guy. A gigantic misstep for Wright.
7. The Woman in the Window (2021)
Speaking of movies that got pushed from their original release date, we have The Woman in the Window, which was originally set to be released by 20th Century Studios in October 2019. After extremely poor test screenings, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) was brought in to helm extensive reshoots, and the release date was moved to May 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down movie theaters in March 2020, the film was pulled from release once again and eventually was sold off to Netflix, where it was unceremoniously dumped in May 2021. Due to so many cooks in the kitchen, The Woman in the Window ends up feeling like a movie made by no one, making it more boring than anything else. One would expect a film that went through so much turmoil would be a disaster, but everyone involved is a total pro, from the cast led by Amy Adams to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, making the film achieve the absolute bare minimum of realizing the story on screen. The Woman in the Window isn’t a travesty, just a snooze, which may or may not be worse.
6. Pan (2015)
Once again, we have a film pushed back from its original release date with Pan. Initially positioned as a big summer blockbuster, Wright’s retelling of the classic tale by J.M. Barrie was moved from June to October 2015 to avoid being swallowed up in the summer movie season. It didn’t do much good as the $150 million film took in just $125 million at the worldwide box office, only $35 million of which came domestically. In a lot of ways, it would be easy to consider Pan as Wright’s worst film. Stylistically, tonally, and storywise, it is all over the place. Why it places higher on that list is the unpredictability and erratic nature of Pan makes it a quite compelling watch. Whether it be an extended sequence of people bouncing on trampolines or the infamous introduction of Hugh Jackman‘s Blackbeard being set to a giant chorus of people singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” much of the film is both difficult to comprehend and pretty fascinating. A bizarre failure that only could have come from Joe Wright.
5. Darkest Hour (2017)
Darkest Hour plays like the perception of what most would think a Joe Wright movie is. This is a very handsome production about Winston Churchill (Oldman) as Prime Minister during World War II, particularly around the Dunkirk evacuation. It smartly takes the biopic approach of focusing on a specific time for the central figure rather than a cradle-to-grave story, and the screenplay from Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody) is totally serviceable. Wright occasionally gets to bring his camera flurry to the proceedings, particularly one shot that launches a camera high into the sky, but coming off of Pan, he clearly needed to settle down for a second and make something solid. The result paid off, as Darkest Hour earned six Oscar nominations (winning two for Oldman and makeup) and made $150 million worldwide, beating out Pan‘s total with a fifth of that film’s budget. A respectable, if a little uninspired film.
4. Hanna (2011)
After making three dramas, Wright decided to swerve into the spy thriller genre for 2011’s Hanna. Reuniting with Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan in the title role, he found the true sweet spot of marrying his garish style with material that wouldn’t naturally call for it. He stages some truly outstanding action and chase sequences in very few takes, if not just one. Hanna’s first encounters with the outside world, after being trained as a killer in isolation for all her life by her father (Eric Bana), are a swirling storm of sensory overload, especially a scene in a Moroccan motel room. The score by The Chemical Brothers stands as one of the best electronic scores in an era where so many movies were shifting in that musical direction. If Hanna was made today, it would be shot digitally instead of 35mm and be a television series, and Amazon actually did make that series; It does not nearly have the impact or beauty found in Wright’s film.
3. Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Wright’s first film remains one of his best. Many were resistant to a new adaptation of Jane Austen‘s classic novel Pride & Prejudice, particularly after a beloved BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but Wright’s lush, vibrant, and deeply romantic take on the tale remains immensely enchanting over a decade later. Keira Knightley, in her first Oscar-nominated performance, proved here she was a true movie star to build a film around and has tremendous chemistry with Matthew Macfadyen, a total left-field pick as the brooding, sexy Mr. Darcy. Pride & Prejudice worked so well that Wright continues to work with many of the people involved with that film over and over again, including Knightley, Macfadyen, Tom Hollander, composer Dario Marianelli, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and production designer Sarah Greenwood. Infamously, the US and international cuts have different endings, with the US version tacking on a rather sappy, unnecessary final scene between Knightley and Macfadyen, but even that poor scene can’t completely drag down what has been an effervescent viewing experience.
2. Anna Karenina (2012)
The response to Anna Karenina when it was released in November 2012 has never made sense. Wright decided to push all his chips in on this truly audacious adaptation of Leo Tolstoy‘s novel, where he depicts the high society of 19th century Russia through the prism of an old, dilapidated theater. A movie where every gesture is choreographed, the musical score shifts between diegetic and non-diegetic, new rooms are constructed through flats flying in and out of scenes, and a cast of Knightley, Macfadyen, Jude Law, Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and many more giving tremendous, highly charged performances. And yet, upon release Anna Karenina was met with little more than a shrug, earning a couple of perfunctory below-the-line Oscar nominations expected for a period film. Wright made his boldest film yet, taking the $40 million budget and making it look like $100 million, and the result really is something you can’t take your eyes off of. Had it not been for a tremendously miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the role of Count Vronsky, this would be a 5-star masterpiece. As it stands, it’s still breathtaking cinema.
1. Atonement (2007)
At the top of the list sits Wright’s second film in his Keria Knightley trilogy. Atonement, adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, has every single person working at the absolute top of their games. This tale of a passionate love being broken apart by a jealous child (a performance that earned Saoirse Ronan her first Oscar nomination) and World War II cuts right inside your heart in the way the best Hollywood melodramas can. Knightley and James McAvoy have chemistry that probably set a good number of film prints aflame based solely on their heat. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who would go on to shoot most of Wright’s films, has every frame look like a classic oil painting without ever being distracting or self-conscious. The much-discussed long take sequence on the beach at Dunkirk still shines as a shining example of the power that method can elicit, doing more to convey the feeling there than the whole of Darkest Hour. Dario Marianelli’s Oscar-winning score both swoons and ratches the tension by incorporating the sounds of a typewriter beautifully, and Jacqueline Durran’s green dress, as worn by Knightley in the film, remains one of the most iconic pieces of costuming in 21st-century cinema. Atonement is Wright’s crowning achievement, and another film coming along to take it down has some mighty large shoes to fill.
It’s the OG ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’, you guys.
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