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Monday, December 8, 2008

Review: Changeling (2008)

* * * 1/2

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

Changeling is an effective drama from director Clint Eastwood and, like much of his work, it is a very dark film with a resolution that rests heavily on the heart. This tale of massive police corruption is, chillingly, based on a true story and one with which the filmmakers have taken relatively few liberties. At the centre of the storm is Angelina Jolie who renders a performance that mostly works but occasionally falters.

The film begins with Christine Collins (Jolie), a single mother with a 9-year-old son named Walter, whom she adores. In March of 1928 Walter disappears and for five months Christine waits on pins and needles, praying for his return and doing her own legwork, calling around to surrounding police precincts to find out if any children have turned up who match Walter’s description. When police finally locate the boy, the reunion is not a happy one. “That’s not my son,” she tells Capt. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who replies that she’s just in shock and ought to take the boy home and “try him out” for a few weeks. But the more time Christine spends with him, the more obvious it becomes that he isn’t Walter. He’s three inches shorter for one thing, circumcised for another. But the police have people on hand who can explain these things away and they begin planting stories in the paper to discredit Christine and make it seem as if she’s trying to rid herself of her son, whose absence gave her the opportunity to lead a party lifestyle.

At first Christine is just a minor irritation, but when she joins forces with Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a preacher with a radio show who has made it his goal in life to expose the corruption of the Los Angeles police department, drastic measures must be taken. Capt. Jones arranges for Christine to be committed to a mental hospital, where she meets other women who have found themselves on the losing end of a battle with the LAPD. Meanwhile, another investigation is taking place in which several missing boys are identified as the victims of a serial murderer, one of those boys being Walter Collins. This development makes things sticky for Capt. Jones, as well as the Chief of Police (played by the always welcome Colm Feore) and the Mayor, both of whom want the story to disappear as quickly as possible to avoid further embarrassment and public outrage. Christine, however, is unwilling to let it go and is unconvinced that Walter is really dead.

All told, I found Jolie’s performance a little uneven. She’s very good in the film’s many quiet scenes but there are a couple of moments when she degenerates to hysterics and the performance starts to feel overly stylized. Furthermore, I didn’t really feel like she fit the role. As played by Jolie, Christine seems a little too... glamorous, even in the asylum scenes (I couldn’t help but notice that despite the fact that when she’s admitted she’s is given a bath with a firehouse, Christine’s eye makeup somehow remains intact). When Amy Ryan shows up about half-way through the film, I started to think that she would have been a better choice for the lead role, possessing as she does the “average Jane” quality that Jolie lacks.

The film itself has a few problems as well. While I found it quite effective overall, I do think that the story ends up running itself into the ground. A great deal of tension is built up during the film’s first two or so hours, but during the last half hour the story seems to wind itself out, as if it doesn’t quite know where to end. The result is a film that looks beautiful (the costumes and cinematography are especially noteworthy) but bleeds itself dry of intensity.

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