A year before Blow-Up blew the lid off London’s mod scene, John Schlesinger’s Darling brought together two of 1965 England’s most intriguing actors — Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde, whose varied work is the subject of a new Criterion Channel collection — for “a powerful and bold motion picture” (as its bright red poster proclaims) about a new lost generation.
Christie plays Diana, a fashion model with her eye always on something bigger. She’s all charm: a brilliant smile, a clever remark, a flirty glance that belies a sly, sweet amorality befitting the times. Soon after meeting Robert (Bogarde), a BBC literary reporter, (and after a train trip where he sucks on her finger with singularly Bogardian depravity), she has left her childhood sweetheart husband to move in with him; Robert also leaves his own spouse and two children. But Robert’s stable life quickly seems too small for Diana: she wants more of everything, right now, while he just wants a quiet place to write. Christie and Bogarde repeatedly breaking apart only to find themselves crashing back together is the beating heart of this scene report.
At times, Schlesinger’s biting irony towards Diana’s social climbing is a bit too on the nose (a gala benefit for solving world hunger with a prodigious buffet and Black child waiters makes an obvious point), but when the target is the British upper-crust, no barbs are ever pointed enough. As Diana insinuates herself higher and higher into society, she realizes, as legions of women before her, that the quickest path to success in this milieu is through her charm, her smile, her body, and her wits, not her actual talent.
Within the context of Bogarde’s filmography, Darling is only a few years out from his career-defining performances in Victim and The Servant, but here Bogarde takes a backseat to Christie. In a role that won her an Oscar for Best Actress, Christie takes what might have been simply another denunciation of a decadent culture and turns it into a character study of a woman determined to live — and thrive — within it. “Darling” is what Diana is called by the men in her life, the word used in seemingly endless ways: to mock, to seduce, to flatter, to patronize, to fix Diana’s place in the world. That she tries to upend what men expect of her, only to end up in a gilded cage, feels bitterly inevitable in Schlesinger’s mod nightmare.
Darling is streaming in the Criterion Channel's Starring Dirk Bogarde series