To coincide with the release of Cyrano, Steph Green delves into the British director's lush and eclectic filmography...
Despite starting out in social realism on British television, Joe Wright swiftly became known for polished period drama adaptations featuring his muse, Keira Knightley. But since their final waltz together in 2012, the director seems to have been on a downward spiral. Coupled with a rakish public love life, propensity for exhibitionism (“basically, I just like showing off”) and general air of arrogance (“I’m a bit of a method director”), both his films and his reputation have taken something of a hit.
Many would find this an unfair assertion. His best works – while still highly stylised – also often deal in restraint, trusting in the small details to win us over. From action thrillers to the biopic, his dedication to constantly expanding upon his craft and embarking on new cinematic challenges is clear across many genres.
With upcoming film Cyrano, he’s turned his hand to the musical, casting his now partner Haley Bennett alongside Peter Dinklage in a big-screen version of Edmond Rostand’s canonical play. With the film out this Friday, read on to see where we think it sits in the ranking of Wright’s highly eclectic filmography…
9. Pan (2015)
Where to begin with the unmitigated disaster that is Pan? The ugly and relentless CGI? The lifeless plot and painful child acting? The Schutzstaffel-like nuns? The way that captives break out into a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a scene incongruous enough to make Kurt Cobain turn in his grave? In this prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Joe Wright (Joe Wrong?) resorted to embarrassing chosen-one white saviour tropes to tell a story nobody wanted or needed. And all this is before you think about the casting of Rooney Mara to play the Native American character of Tiger Lily – a bad decision with zero dramatic payoff.
8. The Woman in the Window (2021)
There have many attempts to replicate the paranoia of Hitchcock’s voyeur thriller Rear Window to varying success, notably the erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s, which sexed up proceedings with dashings of camp. Last year’s The Woman in the Window is one of the big misses, an oddly dour, by-the-numbers adaptation seemingly made for viewers with no attention span and even less of a capacity for fun. At least new TV show The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window sends up the trope. Amy Adams stars as the stock “mad lady” gaslit into a corner by a selection of freaky neighbours, never quite able to dignify the shoddy source material. Seek out recent Hitchcock homage The Voyeurs instead.
7. Darkest Hour (2017)
The apex of Tory Dad cinema, or You Would Be Speaking German If It Weren't For Him: The Movie, Darkest Hour led to Gary Oldman inexplicably winning the Academy Award for Best Prosthetics in a Leading Role. A formulaic, self-congratulatory biopic that pays lip service to a national myth of Winston Churchill as a hero, the film covers the May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis during World War II, culminating in the president’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech. Oldman petulantly chin-wobbles his way through scenes, including one where screenwriter Anthony McCarten inexplicably places him on the London Underground, chewing the fat with the working class – just one of many contrived moments designed to spark Oscar-friendly emotional rapport. The film looks fine, in moments, but at what cost?
6. The Soloist (2009)
Joe Wright’s third film, starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., was considered an odd choice for the director after two hits with period dramas. While the tale of a white middle class journalist exploiting a Black homeless man suffering with schizophrenia for a juicy column scoop is distasteful enough, it’s the overall dullness and lack of purpose that’s most unforgivable. Lessons are learned in a predictable manner, but both protagonists can never really grow in our minds as we simply never learn enough about them. While there are unmistakable flourishes of Wright’s directorial talents, the narrative plods along aimlessly, with a few “big scenes” in which the actors shout and cry not nearly enough to create satisfying peaks in the plot.
5. Hanna (2011)
It’s no surprise that Saoirse Ronan, currently a four-time Academy Award nominee aged 27, absolutely crushed this performance as a teen assassin trained to single-mindedly avenge the death of her mother. Some themes are used as plot Polyfilla rather than being treated with due exploration, but it’s mostly a riveting, globe-trotting chase that acts a showcase for Ronan’s wide-ranging skillset. While Wright name-dropped Lynch and Kubrick as influences for his self-described “surreal fairytale,” the film is rather more straightforward than he’d like you to think (if you ignore the genuinely unhinged Tom Hollander performance in the periphery). With such well-shot action sequences and Wright’s modest career success, could we have a future Bond director on our hands?
4. Cyrano (2022)
Wright’s newest film is a swashbuckling, starry-eyed musical that has been earning lead actor Peter Dinklage plenty of well-earned plaudits this awards season. While the majority of songs, written by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, feel largely unforgettable or ill-suited to the scope of the story, there are moving moments – particularly in the number “Wherever I Fall,” sung at the dawn of a hopeless battle. Even when the plot falters into cliché, that Joe Wright fella knows how to compose a shot, while regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography imparts a pleasing romantic glow. Ben Mendelsohn, in a performance oozing all the rococo camp of Madonna doing “Vogue” at the VMAs, is particularly good. A sticky issue is that we’re asked to find Peter Dinklage unattractive, when by all accounts he’s rather charming and handsome. Still, you have to respect the grandiose vision at play here, with some of Wright’s big swings paying off against the odds.
3. Anna Karenina (2012)
Many balked at Wright’s decision to set the vast majority of Anna Karenina on a stage. But who wanted a paint-by-numbers adaptation, anyway? The smoke and mirrors in the production design only mirrored that of Russian aristocracy, with all its hollow pomp and ceremony. With everything whiffing unmistakably of a soundstage, the film imparts an odd, artificial feel of opulence. No wonder Keira Knightley’s Anna is so woozy with passion, ready to risk it all for a heady rush of heightened romance. The affair between Anna and Count Vronsky (an excellent Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with bruised-peach good looks) is tactile and erotic; one of the film’s highlights is a strange, sinewy waltz that highlights the expressiveness of hands, one of Wright’s trademarks. It’s chaotic, it’s ambitious, and it’s the weakest of the three Knightley-Wright collaborations – but only by a hair.
2. Atonement (2007)
Wright’s deeply sexy, lushly filmed adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement still feels pretty epic fifteen years on: the discovery of Saoirse Ronan, James MacAvoy’s against-odds leading romantic turn, or that green dress, to name a few of high notes. Whether it’s the sexual frisson at the start leading to an infamous library copulation, or the heart-breaking hospital exchange between Romola Garai and Jérémie Renier, Wright plots his emotional beats meticulously to enormous pay-off. The five-minute unbroken tracking shot which pans elegiacally across the beach in Dunkirk, a symbol of the hopelessness of Johnny and Cecilia’s protracted love affair, is a virtuosic scene that Wright has – and fair enough – spent the last fourteen years bragging about.
1. Pride & Prejudice (2005)
What is more romantic than Matthew Macfadyen’s stuttered declaration of love as he emerges through a misty moor in the soft dawn light, chest hair peeking out of a billowing shirt? Or a more chaste yet effective metaphor for frustrated, fiery desire than a simple hand flex? Bursting out of the gate as one of the most assured British debuts of all time, Pride & Prejudice bewitched us, body and soul, with its quiet moments of simple and soft-spoken romance. With the sisterly warmth of Little Women and lavish production design of a Merchant-Ivory jaunt, this adaptation did justice and then some to Austen’s beloved novel and propelled Keira Knightley into the limelight. Hemmed into a rural reality of bookishness and mud-splatter, Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennett is a grounded heroine we can’t help but root for, while the enemies-to-lovers storyline rarely fails to work its magic. With such a brilliant story in place, Wright’s fluid direction, and a supporting cast bursting at the seams with British talent, Pride & Prejudice now feels like a genuine classic – and a prevailing reminder of the heartwarming powers of cinema.
Cyrano is released in UK cinemas on 25 February.