Clint Eastwood directs Angelina Jolie in this Oscar-buzz generating thriller
Great directors have an ability to make any material their own and take risks where others would demur. That is not to say that the subject of 78-year-old Clint Eastwood’s latest – the moving and true story of a traumatised lone mother (Angelina Jolie) who, in late ’20s Los Angeles, insists that the son returned to her by police following his kidnap is not hers – doesn’t involve themes and elements close to the director’s heart. It very much does: not least those of struggle against repressive systems, intolerable situations or impossible odds, a re-appraisal of the depiction of women and others seen as ‘second-class’ and an unflinching approach to the complexity, ironies, rituals and political implications of crime and violence, punishment and revenge.
But having said that, Changeling is, for an essentially populist work, unexpectedly audacious, advancing way beyond the call of duty in all its basic four elements. Firstly, as a period-reconstruction costumer, it is meticulous to the point of affectionate in its realisation of the lost world of 1928 LA, while never allowing such ‘colour’ to obscure or upstage the human drama. As a police investigative procedural, too, it mounts a sober, credible, yet searing critique of the famously corrupt political and law enforcement establishment of the day, led by Chief Davis (Colm Feore). And, as a variation on the campaigning/woman-in-jeopardy movie, it illicits Jolie’s finest performance to date, as the woman, Christine Collins, who faces her worst nightmare – the kidnap of her nine-year-old son, while a child killer is known to be at work.
Jolie’s task is to show each calibration of her maddening dilemma (at one point she is incarcerated in a mental institution), caught as she is between suspended grief, fear, isolation, anger and – most movingly – her maternal feelings towards the imposter (Devon Conti) in her care. But, lastly, it is the restrained clarity of Eastwood’s exposition throughout this roller-coaster ride that is most impressive. He shows the horrors in the same way he observes Christine’s courage, all the while careful only to allow his sympathies to register by means of the tense and empathetic emotional line he keeps at every stage of his heroine’s hellish experiences. It’s a tough movie but also rewarding and inspiring: something of a quiet triumph.