This is the 800lb stovepipe-hatted gorilla at this year’s Oscars. I’d tell you to go and put your money on Lincoln winning Best Picture, Spielberg winning Best Director and Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor now – if it weren’t for the fact that the odds are so poor it would hardly be worth your while collecting your winnings. Is it actually any good?

Having apparently learned the tedious lesson of Chaplin among other lumbering biopics, most recent Great Figure Of History movies have done the sensible thing and opted to dramatise a manageably short but pivotal chunk of a distinguished life and career, the sort of thing that can be panel-beaten into a recognisable story shape, rather than depicting an endless series of disconnected episodes in a joyless plod from cradle to grave. See also Hitchcock, My Week with Marilyn, The King’s Speech and many more. Lincoln is no exception, beginning shortly after his re-election but crucially before his inauguration and focusing almost exclusively on his quest to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which would end slavery in the United States.

From the first few shots, it’s clear that this is an Important film, a Serious film and a Quality film, but it isn’t without its flashes of sly humour. Opening with a neat handling of the Gettysburg Address (including Lincoln’s own reciting of it would have just been too Bill and Ted), we slowly understand Lincoln’s feverish desire to pass this legislation rapidly, even at the cost of potentially prolonging the Civil War, such is his moral imperative to have the outlawing of this barbaric practice enshrined in the most respected of all American legal documents, and such is the uniqueness of the opportunity presented to him.

He is aided and opposed by a simply stunning rogues gallery of American character actors, putting to shame even the impressive rosters of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Sweating under wigs, beards, hats and sideburns, it’s just possible to discern David Strathairn, Bruce McGill, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley and Gregory Itzin – to say nothing of the delightful trifecta of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and blessed, glorious James Spader, having an absolute whale of a time as one of Lincoln’s unofficial vote-fixers.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly fine as Lincoln’s eldest son, but isn’t really given much to do. More interesting and impressive is Sally Field as the sometimes hysterical Mary Todd Lincoln. If it weren’t for Anne Hathaway towering over the award like Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, Field might be walking away with Best Supporting Actress.

But ultimately, the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. This is simply an epic performance. His Lincoln is stooped, grave, benevolent, picaresque, tenacious. Spielberg’s atypically restrained camera work gently dollies and arcs past his leading man’s hunched shoulders and quiet smile, again and again contriving to turn Day-Lewis granite features into a monument – appropriately enough! The story is largely one of politicking, deal-making, legislating and debating. Tony Kushner’s script includes enough human interest to prevent the film from desiccating  as you watch, but knows when to take its time and simply allow Lincoln to set out his legal reasons for pushing ahead with the amendment when the Emancipation Proclamation is already law.

The only performance which can even attempt to eclipse Day-Lewis is Tommy Lee Jones – never better than here as Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s ferocious antislavery bulldog whose ranting zeal may be more hindrance than help. It’s in what possibly should have been the film’s final shot of Stevens and his housekeeper (in fact it comes about ten minutes before the end) that the epic human reason for having all these bearded men shouting at each other is made heartbreakingly clear.

This, then, is proper grown-up filmmaking, handled by a director who made his name with hugely energetic and skilful popcorn nonsense. It’s particularly gratifying to see him tackling such a weighty story with such delicacy after the ghastly Warhorse last year. It’s almost as if the director recognised that that script was so slight that the only chance it would possibly have would be for him to Spielberg all over it, but here he trusts the clarity of the text and the precision of his actors to do much of the work for him, which is greatly to his credit.

There is a tremendous amount to admire here, but ultimately I feel that this is a hard film to love. Dense, complicated, internecine and talky, it doesn’t have enough of an emotional pay-off – or enough good jokes (although there are some) – to be a truly engaging cinema experience. But it targets the Academy’s proclivities with prodigious accuracy. If Argo was ultimately too loose, too funny, too boys-own – too much fun – to win Best Picture, but Zero Dark Thirty was too bare, too sombre – not enough fun – to win Best Picture, then Lincoln hits the bullseye.

My other film of the week was David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell is the writer-director of one of my favourite unsung gems, the delightfully funny Flirting With Disaster, an early success for Ben Stiller as neurotic Mel Coplin, unable to name his child until he has tracked down his own biological parents. On first seeing the trailer, I didn’t clock Russell’s name. It looked for the first two-thirds like standard-issue kooky indie rom-com fare, then they started dancing and I just checked-out. When it later started to get Oscar buzz I was somewhat confused to say the least.

Now I’ve seen it, I’m still somewhat confused. Much of it is very good indeed. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence’s pair of star-crossed crazies are not, as I had assumed, run-of-the-mill Hollywood nutjobs with endearing eccentricities. On the contrary, they are deeply damaged people, seriously, unpleasantly and dangerously ill, both struggling to understand the faulty wiring in their head, but having to use that same faulty wiring to do it. Brilliantly, Cooper’s father has his own history of mental illness, is a bundle of superstitions and OCD and, even more brilliantly, is played by Robert de Niro.

Cooper and Lawrence ignite the screen whenever they appear – their superstar charisma (and pretty nifty dancing skills) instantly elevates the story and they each manage to create genuinely affecting characters for the great majority of the movie. The scene in which Lawrence uses her own statistical research to clamber inside the de Niro character’s delusions and rewire his perception of the world is absolutely extraordinary, delightfully funny and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Unfortunately, it’s also around here, in the final act, that the wheels start to come off. Firstly, the plot is juggling quite a lot of different elements at this point – the central love affair between Cooper and Lawrence, Cooper’s attempts to reintegrate himself with his family and friends, Cooper’s unresolved feelings for his wife, the letters which Lawrence is ferrying between them, the dance contest which Cooper and Lawrence have entered, the epic sports bet which de Niro has made – it’s a lot. And the demands of the genre begin making themselves felt, so this quite unconventional story suddenly starts ending in a very conventional way indeed.

But although all the basic plot demands of a wacky rom-com are met, Russell the scriptwriter has been sloppy with the details. The first three quarters of the film are littered with set-ups which are never paid-off. Whole characters turn out not to influence the plot one bit (say hello, Chris Tucker) and what look like hugely important plot contrivances are just forgotten about or brushed aside. But at the same time as the structure is becoming unsatisfyingly frayed at the edges, the spiky, unpredictable, unconventional characters are becoming unsatisfyingly airbrushed into conformity, with all of the rough edges sanded off and all of their dangerous quirks blanded away by the soothing power of dance.

I doubt it was Russell’s intention but the very clear message of the end of the film is – you have to be normal to be happy. For such an original, nonconformist piece, this is a hugely disappointing way to wrap things up.

No-one else seems to have noticed, or to care though, especially not at the Academy where it has been nominated for an astonishing  eight awards, all of them big hitters, including the “Big Five” plus supporting actor and actress nominations for de Niro and Australian Jacki Weaver as Cooper’s mother.

I only have Beasts of the Southern Wild to go now, which is on its way to me on DVD. For now, here are a few quick predictions about the Oscars ceremony on 24 February. As noted, Lincoln will scoop Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and probably Best Adapted Screenplay as well – although Silver Linings Playbook and Argo probably have a shot here too. Best Actress is a toughie, but  I reckon Jessica Chastain will probably take it, although I would love to see Emmanelle Riva triumph. De Niro has a good chance with Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress will go to Anne Hathaway, absolutely beyond a doubt. Best Original Screenplay is also wide open. I wonder if Mark Boal will be recognised for Zero Dark Thirty.

The Oscars 2013 - Zero Dark Thirty (and Jack Reacher)
The Oscars 2013 – Wrap up