Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review: Changeling

Changeling is occasionally hard to get through, because of the heart-wrenching nature of the subject matter, but it's well worth the perseverance. Both a well-structured, fascinating story and a great (Oscar-nominated) performance by its lead actress reward the viewer's willingness to bear witness to a set of circumstances that no parent would ever wish on anyone.

I didn't know a whole lot about the film before watching it on DVD last night, and I think that's just about the perfect way to go into this (and therefore I won't spoil it - much! - for anyone else). Here's what I went in with: The screenplay is by J. Michael Straczynski (TV shows Babylon 5, Crusade and Jeremiah, along with comic series Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Rising Stars, The Twelve, etc.), the film is directed by Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Flags of Our Fathers, among others) and it stars Angelina Jolie in the lead role of a mother in the 1920s whose son goes missing. When the police tell the distraught woman a few months later that they've found her lost boy, she's overjoyed... until she sees him and declares that he's not her son! That's the setup, and you really shouldn't need anything else - except maybe a few tissues - to enjoy this very entertaining tale.

OK, I lied (a little bit). I'd also heard that JMS spent months researching the details of the true story upon which Changeling is based. He had hit the various archive locations in and around Los Angeles, and was struck by just how much information about the events was on record, nearly 80 years later. Again and again he came across news clippings or court transcripts that contained kernels of data that, had he made them up, no one would have believed could ever have happened. Having seen the film, I can say that it really is quite an amazing story!

Jolie is fabulous in the role of Christine Collins, to the point where I had to continually remind myself that it was actually her under that hat. She's given the daunting task of presenting a quiet strength as Christine goes about the thankless and frankly quite embarrassing chore of convincing people that this youngster isn't her son. Theories abound that she's an irresponsible single parent who enjoyed the freedom that his disappearance gave her, or that she's psychologically unequipped to deal with the changes that several months of unknown experiences have wrought on the young boy. Against all of that, Jolie is superb in her ability to convey true anguish without tearing up the scenery or losing track of her own need to be persuasive in the process. It could so easily have gone off the rails, and it's a testament to Jolie, Eastwood and Straczynski that it instead worked beautifully.

There are a lot of tear-jerking scenes in the film, and I can easily imagine that it was probably a tough script for Straczynski to write. But one moment in particular practically took my breath away. A child was recounting an especially poignant series of events to a hard-boiled, initially-disinterested police detective, and for several minutes we're shown what he's describing in the form of a flashback. As the boy finishes his tale, we're brought back to "present day" (actually, 1928) by way of a shot of the detective's previously-lit cigarette... now just one long ash, still held between his fingers as they rest on the tabletop, indicating that he hadn't moved one inch while the youngster spoke. That shot perfectly sets up the follow-up that shows the look of sheer horror and disbelief that's now etched across the face of the man who thought he'd seen and heard it all by that point. I'm sure the "long cigarette ash shot" has been done before in cinema, but perhaps never as effectively as it was in this graphic context, representing, as it does, one of the major turning points in the story.

JMS also stuck in what I assume has to have been a conscious tip-of-the-hat to Alan Moore's V For Vendetta comic series, as it exactly echoed Evey's final moments of captivity and signaled loud and clear that her transformation out of victimhood was complete (and serves the same purpose here in Changeling).

This is a very strong film that probably didn't get as much attention as it deserved when it made the theatre rounds.

Rating: ****

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