We are back in Hollywood this week after a spate of gripping but depressing films. Like Bashir, Gomorra and Baader Meinhof, The Changeling is also a true story, but it is given the full Hollywood blockbuster treatment as befits a director of Clint Eastwood’s standing. He is carving a niche for himself in delivering beautifully directed, populist movies with a social conscience – Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The Changeling adds to this oeuvre and he has his eyes squarely set on Oscars.
This is the story of a mother’s search for her missing son. Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie as you have never seen her before, is a1920s vampy single mom with lips so ruby red they fill not only her face but the screen as well in all those lingering shots so loved by the director. She goes to work one day as a roller-skating supervisor at Pacific Bell (good historical scenes in themselves), and when she comes home, her beloved Walter is gone.
The LAPD in the prohibition era of 1928 was a corrupt and politically motivated police force (plus ca change some might say) and deeply unpopular. When a missing child is found, Captain Jones, in charge of the half-hearted investigation, arranges a mother-son reunion, complete with press at the railway station to try and regain some moral high ground for the force. But shock horror, it’s not Walter. Accused of being in shock and denial, and a bad mother, Christine is blackmailed into taking the boy in. What follows is a teeth-grindingly irritating sequence of events with Christine pitted against the system which is deaf to her insistence – despite all the evidence – that this is not her son. This bureaucracy has a painful resonance to those of us who have battled at some stage or another with the likes of Camden Council, banks or power companies or, at another level the frustration one feels when looking at the horror of Zimbabwe and being absolutely powerless to do anything.
To her aid comes a knight in shining armour in the unlikely form of John Malkovitch, unrecognisable apart from his mellifluous voice, as Reverend Briegleb who is campaigning against the corruption in the LAPD. He takes up her case when the villainous Jones (odiously and convincingly played by Jeffrey Donavan as the big-for-his-boots but brainless official who makes all the rules) sections her in the local madhouse.
The arbitrary and sadistic incarceration of sane women at the whim of the police forms a parallel strand in the movie, one that Christine and Briegleb take up as part of their crusade to shame the LAPD into looking for Walter. You also get the sense that this ticks some of Eastwood’s boxes of politically correct causes.
There’s no bad cop without a good one – and true to form by chance the good one stumbles across a runaway boy who provides the key to the film’s gruesome and grizzly unravelling.
So all this sounds like another docudrama you say. Well, there are some massive differences, budget for one. The opening scenes of Los Angeles in 1928 are impressive – big pans of bustling street scenes, with trams, buses and cars of the period, teeming with people and complete with contemporary facades – as are the crowd scenes of the demonstrations outside the courthouse, all pure Hollywood in scale.
Then of course there is La Jolie herself who does not come cheap, but again is making a name for herself in serious films – most recently applauded as Daniel Pearl’s wife in A Mighty Heart (forget about voicing over Beowulf in between). And she is surprisingly good – not only to look at, immaculately dressed and coiffed in period style throughout, not forgetting those lips – but also in the mad house scenes where she looks terrible and acts brilliantly; bringing to mind her early tour de force in Girl, Interrupted, also set in a mental hospital. The child actors also deserve praise in acting out some harrowing scenes.
One or two minor quibbles though. The film struggles to find an ending. Just when you think closure is achieved, there is more, and more, and more….And as a result the film is over-long, but nevertheless engrossing as a mystery should be. It is also strange that the fake Walter Collins plays that role without demur and, even when he is re-united with his mother, his behaviour throughout remains an enigma. And some of the characterisation is two-dimensional – all the goodies are good, and all the baddies are bad. Dramatic licence no doubt. These aside, it is always satisfying to feel a part of a victory of the little people over big bad brother.