Dark Victory

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In contrast with today's studiously dignified portrayals of the dying, Bette Davis' portrayal of Judith as angry and confused is perhaps more honest, more humane."

It's 1939. Young socialite Judith Traherne is the toast of Society, her life a whirl of parties. In the daylight hours she rides horses. She's young and strong and enormously popular and everything seems to be going her way. Then, out of the blue, she learns that she has a brain tumour. Unhappily, she submits to surgery, thinking that'll be the end of it. It isn't. She's so charmed by her surgeon that she marries him, but later she discovers he has lied to her, and that, in fact, she has only a few months to live.

For anyone who has dealt with serious illness, Dark Victory may easily come across as overblown and insincere - it's certainly exploitative and ridiculously sentimental. Yet coming to terms with impending death, especially at a young age, is often a melodramatic process in reality, and the extreme mood swings which Davis portrays here make a certain amount of sense - they are, perhaps, the only way to convey in under two hours the extreme nature of the emotional journey she's making.

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In contrast with today's studiously dignified representations of the dying, Bette Davis' portrayal of Judith as angry and confused is perhaps more honest, more humane. A pivotal moment in Davis' career, this was the film which proved that she was more than just a wide-eyed starlet with a penchant for drama, and launched her into the Hollywood stratosphere.

Upon discovering her impending fate, Judith is faced with a choice: should she stand by her new husband or should she go out and have a good time? On the side of the latter is a young Humphrey Bogart, one of few actors who could match Davis for sheer force of personality, and it's clear she won't altogether resist temptation. By framing her actions in this desperate way, the film is able to explore ordinary female desires without the weight of social approbation which might normally apply. It humanises its heroine in a way which makes her seem surprisingly modern despite the old-fashioned style of the drama itself, thus achieving a certain timeless quality.

Still surprisingly powerful after all these years, Dark Victory many not always convince but it's still well worth a look.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2008
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Dark Victory packshot
A young heiress diagnosed with terminal brain cancer must decide how to spend her last few weeks of life.
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Director: Edmund Goulding

Writer: Casey Robinson, based on the play by George Emerson Brewer Jr and Bertram Bloch.

Starring: Bette Davis, George Brent, Humphrey Bogart, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Henry Travers

Year: 1939

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US


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