He’s might be coming up on his 80th birthday, but Clint Eastwood shows no signs of slowing down. Currently preparing his Nelson Mandela biopic in South Africa and with culture-clash drama Grand Torino already in the bag, Eastwood tells another story of a woman in trouble, following Million Dollar Baby, Changeling. Single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) lives in a suburban street in Los Angeles with her nine year old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith), a quiet, obedient boy who loves movies. When she is called into work unexpectedly one Saturday, she has to leave Walter by himself for the day, with the radio on and a sandwich in the fridge. When she gets home, later that evening, the boy is gone.

The initial response of the Los Angeles Police Department is unhurried and faintly condescending, a chill indication of what is to follow. Five months later, the city’s publicity-seeking police chief (Colm Feore) reveals that the boy has turned up in a small town in the Mid West, and stages a reunion. But this boy is clearly not Walter. When Christine points this out to anyone who will listen, she is treated first as a hysterical fool and then as a dangerous lunatic. With the help of a campaigning minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Christine confronts the authorities and exposes the corruption and incompetence in the LAPD in order to continue the search for her son.

At its best, Changeling is a frightening and effective parable of stained innocence and endemic corruption. Time and again, the people charged with protecting Christine; the arrogant police captain (Jeffrey Donovan), the sneering doctor (Peter Gerety), the sadistic psychiatrist (Denis O’Hare), reveal themselves as misogynistic and self-serving bullies. Christine’s trial at the hands of these men is enough to carry the entire film but in switching from her point of view, the film overburdens itself.

What begins as a mystery-thriller becomes an impassioned issue film when Christine is thrown to the wolves of the LAPD, then transforms into a Cuckoo’s Nest style medical drama. Later, in another change of tone, Eastwood skirts around the tropes of the serial killer film before climaxing in a series of courtroom scenes that bring us from a condemnation of corruption to a pointedly one-sided discussion on the death penalty. It is interesting to read that Eastwood shot Changeling from the first draft of J. Michael Straczynski’s exhaustively researched script, something almost unheard of in Hollywood where scripts can go through dozens of revisions from various writers. Another point of view might have retained the same elements but arranged them in a less awkward form.

The innovation shown in bringing 1920s Los Angeles to the screen in recreating entire streets, cityscapes and generating crowds of digital background actors is not fully matched by the story which carries the ring of truth but is perhaps too conventionally told. Ambitious and affecting, Changeling just fails to cohere as the epic tragedy it wants to be, the sad saga of Christine’s battle with the authorities overshadowed by the adjoining history of the Chicken Coop Murders, the two stories connected by history but uncomfortably crushed together here.

We are interested in Christine, in her struggle for truth and justice, and once she achieves that, the actuality of the case, the hows and whys and whens, carry very little meaning. In attempting to widen the scope of his story, Eastwood loses track of his central focus, ultimately attempting to bring both sides to a conclusion in an unwieldy double court case, cross-cutting between both in a muddled rush of endings.

Regardless, at the centre of the film is a brilliant performance from Angelina Jolie, a shy, tender woman whose life is shattered and mounts a ferocious battle to put it back together. Jolie’s intimate, emotional turn works because we endure it with her; it is not just a series of events. Changeling is not ‘based on a true story’, the title card bravely announces it is as ‘a true story’, every scene is based on an attributable historical record. This shocking veracity gives Jolie’s performance even more power, and she wields it with tremendous ability.

I have abandoned my increasingly strained efforts to craft punning headlines for the reviews. It was all getting a bit stupid. I'll use the film's title from now on.

1 comment:

The Unquiet Man said...

No more puns? Ah, John...