14 December 2008
Every so often, along comes a film that's so mesmerisingly powerful that any flaws that may or may not be present are immediately dismissible in favour of the overwhelming nature of the whole. Changeling is one of those movies - despite flaws that do occasionally rear their rather ugly heads, this is most certainly among the best films of the decade, if not longer than that. Interestingly, plenty of these types of films have been being produced by one man - Clint Eastwood.
Set during the 1920's and 30's in Los Angeles, Changeling charts the story of Christine Collins, who returns home to find that her son, Walter, has been kidnapped. After reporting the incident to the corrupt LAPD, 5 months pass with no news. Then suddenly, in a flurry of 'positive' press, a boy the LAPD claim is Walter is returned to Christine. Problem is, she's certain the boy isn't her son, and trying to convince the police of this fact proves more difficult than it should be.
It's a powerful, assured piece, masterfully directed by Eastwood. But equal kudos, too, go to his production design team, their immaculate recreation of early-20th century LA complimenting and enhancing the veteran director/actor's direction. To call it simplistic would be something of an insult, but there is a real simplicity the piece - he's not striving for deeper meaning with his visuals, because, since this is a true story, meaning can simply be derived from the script. The direction, instead, goes for a 'this is how it happened' approach, and Eastwood pulls it off magnificently.
There are several stand-out scenes, and to go over them in detail would be to spoil the film, but suffice to say that Eastwood successfully tugs - and occasionally full-on yanks - at your heart-strings. Leaving un-moved from this film is not an option. One execution scene in particular is the most disturbing and saddening since The Green Mile, the harrowing screams of the accused echoing around my skull for quite a while.
But perhaps most brilliantly, Eastwood coaxes out a performance from Angelina Jolie so fully-formed, so mesmerising, that Jolie herself seems slightly surprised by her newfound acting ability, her fawn-eyed portrayal of Christine occasionally bordering on annoying and perhaps too worthy, but never quite stepping into those realms. What it does do, however, is prove that Mrs Jolie-Pitt is far more than just a pretty face - she has the acting chops to hold her own in a Clint Eastwood movie.
But the wonderful thing is that she doesn't sideline any of the other players in the piece. John Malkovich is terrific as the preacher Gustav Briegleb, at first coming across as just another religious nut trying to forge a path to fame on the radio, but slowly evolving the character into the moral centre of the piece. Where the LAPD fails, he succeeds, and it's in part down to his faith, but also down in spades to the monumental foul-up on behalf of police.
Three other performances instantly come to mind - Jeffery Donovan as JJ Jones, all malicious spite and mistrust as he unloads his flawed logic on the helpless Christine; Colm Feore as the malevolent Chief of Police James E Davis, the fault of whom it is that the police has so delved into corruption; and finally Jason Butler Harner as the deranged Gordon Northcott, all shifty eyes and lip-licking madness.
The one thing wrong with the movie, however, is that it is perhaps a little bit too bloated. It has more endings that Return of the King - one so convincing that I was halfway out of my seat before I realised that there was still more coming - and it's very aware of the fact that it's Oscar-baiting fare. But honestly, it's forgivable given the artistry on display here.
At the end of the day, this is one of the very best movies to come out this year. It's fantastically written - a surprise, given the writer's strike - masterfully directed and features several stand-out peformances, some of which come from completely unexpected sources. Just make sure you bring a cushion.