24 March 2009

Movie Review: Changeling


2008, 141mins, R
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: J. Michael Straczynsk
Cast includes: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Amy Ryan, Jason Butler Harner
Release Date: 31st October 2008

Changeling is an ambitious and certainly likable motion picture, it’s solidly crafted like a piece of reliable furniture and it’s perception of Los Angeles in the early 20th Century is both lavish and detailed. That said it never quite reaches the awards level of excellence director Clint Eastwood is so evidently trying for and at times proceedings go far to pantomime for their own good. It always intrigues and certainly depicts a rather mesmerizing story but to herald Changeling as a modern day classic is to offer it a lofty status that it never quite measures up to.

The most remarkable thing concerning Changeling is that it’s actually penned around true events, the story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) whose son disappeared for several months and when supposedly reunited with him via the LAPD she was given a child who she vehemently claimed to be the wrong boy. The LAPD refused to take her claims seriously and within weeks Collins was placed into a mental institution being branded delusional and an unfit mother. The aftermath was an epic battle fought by Collins to tackle the corrupt LAPD, bring down the horrid hospitals and most importantly find her real son.

In the much sought after role of Christine Collins Jolie does a good job, it’s not a performance for the ages but in conjuring sympathy and constructing a believable period character the tabloid’s favorite mummy manages to do a credible job with a woman so worthy of a biopic. A lot of what works with Changeling is down to Jolie’s well measured effort, and the garments and porcelain like make-up she wears are sensationally accurate in creating a female of the 1930’s. Other supporting roles are varied in their effectiveness. As a Reverend in support of the Collins campaign John Malkovich is surprisingly restrained but as watchable as always, whilst in a small part as a fellow metal health patient Amy Ryan is affable and energetic. Ryan is a performer of some quality, but in order to break into the Hollywood thesping cauldron to which she clearly belongs she’ll need to be willing to aim for larger parts. Her participation in Changeling is valuable but the extent of the role is little more than a cameo. On the lower end of the spectrum playing captain of the LAPD Jeffrey Donovan feels disappointingly unnatural in the role and as his chief Colm Feore isn’t much better. Finally as potential serial killer Gordon Northcott, Jason Butler Harner is a mixed bag. At times he overacts frantically but in his better and more subdued moments he exudes creepiness and genuine menace.

Clint Eastwood has drawn Changeling out to 141 minutes, and whilst three quarters of that runtime grip the other unaccounted moments tend to flail around and stumble in attempts to push the story forward. The films opening 40 minutes are well mounted and executed as are the final 70, it’s the mental institution middle section that slows things down. The pictures depiction of a 1930’s crazy ward is hackneyed and borderline cliché, and the screenplay simply wastes too much runtime on this unappealing segment. The film takes at least half an hour to finish up with this slice of the picture, with another script revision and the input of another scribe I’m certain that could have been reduced to a more palatable 10 minutes. However in degrading one aspect we have to celebrate the others, the screenplay after all has far more good than bad. Writer J. Michael Straczynski has condensed the sprawling mystery into an intriguing cinematic bundle and written the vast majority of the characters rather well. The film handles several themes and subplots with an admirable skill and thus on these grounds it deserves appreciation and above all else it’s an emotionally engaging piece of work.

Visually and from a directorial standpoint Changeling is well made stuff, the look of Los Angeles fits common perception of the era perfectly and the cinematography and art design are striking and possibly the film’s most awards worthy assets. Eastwood’s skill behind the camera is also only ever a benefit, like the best directors he understands the basics of filmmaking are the ones that require the most attention, after all no building can stand still without solid foundations. Changeling isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but Eastwood always keeps one eye in on involving the audience and delivering a picture that holds together and draws the desired emotions it needs to work, this alone ensures that Changeling is never less than watchable.

2008 inevitably yielded several more consistently profitable cinematic outings, indeed Changeling simply feels like the barbeque after a long day out. There are notable flaws that prevent it from powering into classic territory but hey, when Changeling gets it just right and hits it’s high points, there are few who are going to come away complaining.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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