Sunday, 31 May 2009

DVD Review: 'Changeling'

I really think it’s time I changed my movie-going habits. Seduced by the hype and the promise of a few explosions, I’ll happily trot off to my local multiplex (over £6 for a large hot dog and a coke....I’d rather starve!) to see the latest superhero shenanigan, disaster movie or sci-fi opus. But all those highly-regarded, well-reviewed proper little films – the intimate human stories, the real-life dramas – well, I always mean to pop down and take a look but...there always seems to be something else to do. Ahem. I was caught out by ‘Frost/Nixon’ which sounded brilliant, had the thumbs-up from the critics – and yet it came and went and I never quite got there. The same is true of ‘Changeling’, director Clint Eastwood’s most recent effort, a thriller/drama set in Los Angeles in 1928 and starring Angelina Jolie as a single mother whose life is thrown into turmoil when her young son goes missing. Sounded great, if a bit TV-movie-of-the-week. Once again, I never quite got there...

Curse me for a fool. I’ve just caught up with ‘Changeling’ on DVD and I’m finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that this wonderful film has existed for six months or so without me actually seeing it. I’ve just spent a captivating two and a half hours soaking up this stunning and extraordinary film, this masterpiece, a film so good it puts all the bang-and-flash stuff back in the toybox and reminds you what great cinema really should be all about.
Angelina Jolie (a far, far better actress than she’s ever given credit for) plays Christine Collins, a hard-working single mum in 1920s Los Angeles, struggling to bring up her young son Walter whilst holding down a job as a telephone switchboard supervisor. Called in to do an extra shift to cover for a sick colleague Christine is forced to leave her son at home alone. When she gets back there’s no sign of him. Eventually the corrupt LA Police, whose reputation is at rock bottom and whose authority and honesty is constantly being challenged by a fervent local priestthe Reverand Brieglab (John Malkovich), take an interest and a few months later it appears that they find Walter, who has been in the company of a drifter wandering aimlessly halfway across the country. Christine prepares for a tearful reunion at the railway station....but instantly realises the boy isn’t her son. The Police, desperate for some good publicity, brush her protests under the carpet and eventually try to discredit her by throwing her into a corrective institute for the mentally-unstable where electro-convulsive therapy is the order of the day. The only way out for Christine is to sign an affidavit confirming that the recovered boy is her son and that she’s been labouring under a terrible misapprehension. But Christine is nothing if not determined and single-minded and she refuses to compromise. Meanwhile a young boy named Clarkwood Smith tells the Police about his experiences with a psychopathic child-kidnapper who, he says, has brutally slain over twenty young boys... The Police still try to effect a cover-up but eventually the killer is brought to justice and Christine moves closer to finding out the truth about her missing, presumed dead, son...

‘Changeling’ is a gorgeous, glorious and yet unsettling film. Based on a true story casually brought to writer Straczynski’s attention, it’s not just about Christine’s plight – Jolie takes a back seat for a while when she’s incarcerated – but it’s a no-holds-barred expose of the corruption and mendacity at the heart of the LAPD at the tail end of the 1920s and how, maybe thanks to Christine’s story, things began to change. It’s an unshowy, modest film, too, despite some opulent visuals which evoke 1920s Los Angeles with sumptuous costumes and set dressings and subtle bits of computer tomfoolery. Straczynski’s script is unshowy, too, and Eastwood’s unfussy direction allows the script’s story to unravel at its own pace and in its own way, with short, punchy and pithy dialogue and, despite its generous running time, with no narrative flab and nothing extraneous to the demands of the plot. The movie gives us a new psychopath to boo and hiss at; Jason Butler Hamer’s Gordon Stewart Northcott is as deranged as they come, all the more terrifying because the story’s ultimately not about him so we learn nothing of his motives for his slayings, what led him to become a monster imprisoning and slaughtering innocent young children for no apparent reason. We hate him and yet we feel a strange sympathy for him as he is led, destroyed, towards his ultimate, if deserved, fate.

In some ways ‘Changeling’ isn’t easy viewing; there are no neat answers and it determinedly is not a ‘feelgood’ movie. But it’s a superb achievement, a film which hooks you from the outset and draws you into its world, its characters, its situation and doesn’t let you go. So don’t make the mistake I made and leave this one of the shelf too long – as we gear up for the big Box Office summer heavyweights, it’s worth reminding yourself of how powerful quiet, restrained human stories can be in a multiplex world dominated by big robots and men in tights.

The DVD; Eighteen minutes of extras in the form of a couple of "It was a wonderful experience, Clint is a wonderful director" featurettes which manage to squeeze in a little bit about the screenwriter, the costumes and the locations. Thin stuff but interesting. There'll undoubtedly be a 2-disc edition along at some point but the film's the thing so don't sit there waiting.

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