Sunday, 21 May 2017

DRAMA: 8 Mile (2002)


8 Mile (USA, 2002)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Eminem, Kim Basinger, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer

When musicians turn their hand to acting, the results can often not be pretty. Even if the film in question isn't already a vanity project about the musician's life (Glitter, Purple Rain, Moonwalker and so on), there's a tendency for singers to either play themselves or needlessly draw attention to their presence. Sometimes this can work to the film's advantage - for instance, David Byrne in True Stories - but for every figure like David Bowie who can serve a role, there are a dozen singers who simply can't fit in. Sometimes you get even both phenomena in the same film, as was the case in Ken Russell's Tommy: Tina Turner excels as the Acid Queen, while Eric Clapton (with both a real and a fake beard) is barely credible.
8 Mile came at a time when Eminem was at the peak of his powers. On the back of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, which brought him both hit singles and critical praise, it would have been extremely easy for him to coast on a project like this. Instead, we get a very fine performance in a film which avoids some (but not all) of the cliche-ridden pitfalls of the rags-to-riches story. While not perfect, or Curtis Hanson's finest film, it is a gritty and absorbing project which still holds up very well after 15 years.
One of the first challenges that any film about music has to do is to explain the appeal of the music and its surrounding culture to an audience that may have no familiarity with it. Because of the prevalence of rap and hip-hop in mainstream culture, it would be easy to assume that the paying public would go along with every aspect of the world that is put in front of them. But because this is a period piece, which takes place in a very specific context within the history of American music, that simply isn't an option. This is the mistake made by Notorious (no, not the Hitchcock film), which assumed that its audience would already be experts on Notorious B.I.G. and therefore didn't feel the need to rationalise the hagiographic reputation it accorded him.
8 Mile's first success is that it triumphs where Notorious sank without trace. Even if you're not a fan of rap music (and I include myself in this category), the film gives us a sufficient grounding in the world of mid-1990s Detroit to understand why this music has a pull on young men, and why Rabbit would feel the need to prove himself in this way. Just as the mod movement in London in the 1960s provided an outlet for young men who laboured away in factories by day ("the dirty jobs" of Quadrophenia), so the rap battles provide an outlet for the all the frustrations, ego and anxiety experienced by these young men.
By focussing on the plight of disenfranchised, alienated young men in an unforgiving landscape, the film merits close comparison with La Haine, and by extension Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. While there are some clear narrative similarities - the protagonists are all three young men, who undertake some form of manual labour to get by and feed their respective vices - there is a big difference in emphasis. Both Mathieu Kassovitz and Karel Reisz are interested in the social conditions which could have produced their leading men, whether it's the banlieues of Paris or the post-war streets of Nottingham. Hanson, by contrast, keeps Eminem and his character's journey front and centre, with the setting increasingly fading into the background.
That's not to say, of course, that Hanson's rendering of 1990s Detroit is completely unremarkable or inconsequential. He's assisted ably in this regard by Rodrigo Prieto, who was Oscar-nominated for his work on Silence and Brokeback Mountain. More pertinently to this film, he shot Amores Perros, and the film benefits from his gritty use of handheld cameras and claustrophobic lighting choices. While the rendering of the landscape is not the most groundbreaking for its subject matter, it is effective in getting across what might be called the prison of familiarity: the main characters are desperate to get out of their situation in some way, but always end up staying because this world is the only one they know.
Reviewing the film for The Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert praised the film for essentially not having a third act. In the traditional rags-to-riches model, the protagonist goes through the many trials of the story to emerge intact, leave the confines of the society in which they found themselves at the start, and go off to achieve their dream and enjoy success. Ebert wrote: "[8 Mile] "avoids the rags-to-riches route and shows Rabbit moving from rags to slightly better rags... I would love to see a sequel in which Rabbit makes millions and becomes world famous, and we learn at last if it is possible for him to be happy."
Deliberately neglecting to have a proper third act is not a creative decision that works well in all situations - Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, for example, suffers greatly from ending in the wrong place. But in the case of 8 Mile, it's a narrative decision which pays off, because it compliments the gritty feel for which Hanson is striving. Situating fairy tales in a gritty environment can work brilliantly well - Hard Candy and Heartless being great examples - but you have to establish the rules of engagement very early on. Introducing a fairy tale ending to a gritty, realistic story can regularly prove jarring, turning an earthly drama into a cheap and frothy melodrama.
With 8 Mile, there is a conscious effort from Hanson and Eminem to hammer home the disjunct between the emotional feeling of success and the practical benefits that it brings. Rabbit rises in status by the end of the film, earning respect after his initial failure, but in the end he is still living in a trailer park with his family, working a boring, unrewarding job and just about staying on the right side of the law. The downside to this approach is that the film occasionally feels repetitive or drags; we know that some kind of uplift is coming, because the story is well-worn, and there are times of wishing that it would just cut to the chase. But the film deserves credit for not taking the Hollywood route at the ending; it may not be making any kind of profound political point in this decision, but it is the right way of doing it.
All of which brings us on to Eminem's performance. Rappers have in the past been particularly guilty of just playing themselves in films; Ice Cube has carved an entire film career out of shouting and chewing the scenery (Boys n the Hood notwithstanding). But even though Rabbit's story is a partial reflection of Eminem's own life, there is nothing either self-conscious or narcissistic about his performance. There's a vulnerability to him which isn't always present in his music, and he commits to the character, fighting any urge to showboat or break the fourth wall. It's a very fine performance, culminating in the excellent final rap battle and his Oscar-winning rendition of 'Lose Yourself'.
Outside of Eminem, the supporting cast of 8 Mile do a very good job. Casting Kim Basinger as Rabbit's mother was a sore point for many critics, who felt that she was too glamorous to pull off the part. But Basinger, who worked with Hanson previously on L. A. Confidential, acquits herself perfectly well, consciously and deliberately downplaying even her most emotional scene so that Rabbit's story and experience is always in the foreground. Britanny Murphy, who was great in Girl, Interrupted, adds a real spark as Rabbit's love interest, adding it to her impressive roster of compellingly fractured supporting characters. Watch out also for brief appearances by Boys n the Hood director John Singleton (as one of the bouncers), future Percy Jackson star Brandon T. Jackson and fellow rapper and Pimp My Ride host Xzibit.
There are a couple of issues with 8 Mile which prevent it from being a masterpiece. For all its attempted departures from convention in the final half hour, it's still a deeply generic beast which makes too little of its opportunities to depart from the Rocky formula. And despite us knowing for the most part where the story will go, the film is still very loosely edited; it doesn't have the raw, breakneck intensity that made La Haine so good, and there's only so much we can look at a run-down street before we start to lose interest.
8 Mile is a gritty and gripping drama which has generally aged well and remains one of the highlights of Eminem's career. While it's hardly the most original story ever told, and some of its execution could have been tightened up in the editing suite, there is enough in both the narrative and the performances to carry us through and keep us interested. If nothing else, it's a good reminder that singers can occasionally hold their own in cinema, and while it isn't Hanson's greatest film, it is still a worthwhile watch.


NEXT REVIEW: Mean Creek (2004)

Saturday, 29 April 2017

RIP Jonathan Demme


For the second time this month, the film community has lost an extremely talented visual artist. Following the death of Michael Ballhaus, we now have to say goodbye to Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, who has died at the age of 73.
Much of the tributes and praise for Demme has focussed, quite rightfully, on The Silence of the Lambs. To this day it remains one of only three films (the others being It Happened One Night and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) to have won the 'big five' at the Oscars - Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. While many Hannibal Lecter purists would hold that Michael Mann's Manhunter is better, or lament the way the series subsequently progressed, 'Lambs still holds a lot of its original power, thanks in no small part to Demme's deft means of dealing with actors. Like Billy Wilder before him, Demme's background in screenwriting allowed him to keep character empathy at the centre of his film, making his stylistic choices feel constantly naturalistic.
But there was much more to Demme than his Oscar triumph. His career had many twists and turns, bringing us a number of classics in each of their given genres. With Stop Making Sense, he gave us one of the greatest concert films of all time, catching Talking Heads at their peak and showing that there was still life in the format in the same year that This Is Spinal Tap called it into question.
Married to the Mob still holds up as both a great vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer and a very funny comedy sending up the conventions of the gangster film. And Philadelphia - which earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar - is a powerful drama which played an important role in bringing the AIDS crisis to wider attention in America. Even his weaker films, like his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, still have a spark to them thanks to Demme's energy behind the camera.
If you want to pay tribute to Demme, any of the films I have mentioned above would be appropriate; I would personally opt for a double bill of Stop Making Sense and The Silence of the Lambs. I'll leave you with this wonderful behind-the-scenes image from the latter. RIP.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

BRIT PICK: Spectre (2015)


Spectre (UK/ USA, 2015)
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw

One of the most obvious characteristics of the Bond series is that each instalment of the franchise can sit on its own. Modern audiences are asked to believe that the character has been the same age for more than 50 years, and the series has bent or tinkered with its conventions ever so slightly as the decades have rolled past in order to stay relevant. While this has kept the Bond series as a whole firmly in the realms of fantasy, it has allowed individual entries in the series to push for something more gritty or realistic; if it works, it's embraced and carried forward, and if not the series reverts to type with very few tears.
Since the franchise was effectively rebooted with Casino Royale, an approach more becoming of comic books has been employed: different writers and directors come in and somehow try to stitch all the character's actions together into an overarching narrative. Doctor Who, Sherlock and Star Wars have all shown that this is not an easy thing to pull off, and it's harder still to convince an audience that such an undertaking was always intentional. Spectre attempts to tie together the events of its predecessors with a story about chickens coming home to roost - and while there is much to applaud about Sam Mendes' film, it is also riddled with problems.
The first such problem is the amount of emphasis given to each of the previous films. You would imagine that any story which seeks to claim that the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were all an elaborate means to bring us to this point would place an equal weight on each instalment and the events therein. Instead, Quantum of Solace has been practically airbrushed out of history; besides the odd mention of Quantum, we get no reference to its plot and Dominic Greene is never seen on camera. The refusal to even hint at it is too constant a factor for it to be an accident; it is as though the whole production threw up their hands, admitted that it was terrible, and then asked us to forget that it ever existed.
A related problem is that the script for Spectre is deeply conflicted, especially when it comes to the film's female characters. Madeleine Swann is written like two completely different people who have been composited; one moment she's being icy cold, compelling and giving Bond a run for his money with a gun, the next she's being captured for the umpteenth time and needing to be rescued. For all the steps forward that the Daniel Craig era has taken, it still can't resist a damsel in distress.
None of the women in Spectre are given a fair crack of the whip. Even if we put Léa Seydoux to one side, that still leaves us with Monicca Bellucci. The film has a great opportunity here, casting an older woman with the promise of a deeper relationship. Instead, she gets five minutes of screen time to look scared, sleep with Bond and then leave. Dressing her in stockings is at best a nod back to Teri Hatcher in Tomorrow Never Dies and at worst just lazy fanservice. Not every woman in Bond's life has to be helpless without him, and the series has been at its best when the women are equal to him - either in a fetishistic way, like Xenia Onatopp or Bambi and Thumper, or something more mature and three-dimensional.
Then there are the villains to consider. Sherlock's Andrew Scott waltzes through the whole film like he has "bad guy" tattooed on his forehead, but at least he's fully committed to what he is doing. Christoph Waltz, meanwhile, is completely underwhelming as Blofeld. Having Bond and Blofield as adopted brothers is workable, but Waltz can't decide whether to play it as the Jew Hunter from Inglorious Basterds or as a straight-up pantomime. He seems uncomfortable in the costume, looking like Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II but without the threat. Either it's just a bad performance, or Mendes didn't know what he wanted from the character.
Further evidence of a confused director can be found in the torture scene. The rope torture and poisoning scenes in Casino Royale were justified; they were both an effective means of moving to a grittier style and a meaningful way of showing Bond's vulnerability. Torture has been used as a novelty in Bond films before - there's a lot of it in the Brosnan era, whether Xenia's thighs in Goldeneye or the neck-breaking chair in The World Is Not Enough. But here it feels all too routine, as if Mendes said: "We need a torture scene here" and then got the specifics from a trip to the dentist.
Like Skyfall before it, Spectre makes a number of conscious nods to its back catalogue. There's a lot more references to the Connery era this time around, with the DB5 and the gadgets on the DB10 nodding to Goldfinger, and Blofeld's cat and base borrowing heavily from You Only Live Twice. The sequence on the train is essentially a more stereoidal take on the train fight in From Russia With Love, and Swann's appearance particularly in the dining car is strongly influenced by Tatiana Romanova. But unlike its predecessor, these references are here for their own sake rather to make any attempt at justifying the franchise's longevity.
There are a lot of plot details in Spectre which don't make sense or which are disappointing - another probable consequence of having four writers. The DNA scan on the Spectre ring is both a very arbitary gadget and a contrived plot device, asking us to accept both the technology and the fact that all the people involved would have worn the same ring. Then there's the ease with which Bond is able to blow up Blofeld's base, or the comparable ease with which Blofeld is able to wire up the whole of the MI6 building without anyone noticing. The final act is deeply anticlimatic, falling emotionally short where The Bourne Ultimatum hit a home run.
In the midst of all these niggles, flaws and frustrations, there is an awful lot about Spectre which can be enjoyed, at least in the moment. For all its concessions to cliché, the film does make some interesting points about our increasingly surveillance-driven world and how easily it can be manipulated. The set-pieces are beautifully filmed, with Mendes lending excellent coverage to both the car chases and the long opening shot in Mexico. If you only watch Bond films for the car chases and fight scenes, rest assured they are still exhilirating enough to allow you to gloss over the plot holes.
There are also improved performances within the supporting cast. Ben Whishaw's Q in Skyfall was essentially Brains from Thunderbirds, but here he becomes more rounded and appealingly tetchy. It's a different Q from Desmond Llewellyn's, but it still feels like a kindred spirit. Ralph Fiennes was always going to have a hard job following Judi Dench as M, but here he rises to the occasion, taking the tension he exhibited in In Bruges and bringing along some devil-may-care attitude for the ride.
The best aspect of Spectre, however, is the scene involving Mr White - if nothing else because it is the most effective at tying up a part of the overarching story. There's a wonderfully bleak, pathos-ridden quality to the scene, with one man utterly defeated and the other delaying the inevitable. The writing is unpredictable but coherent, with Craig and Jesper Christiansen dualling brilliantly and the latter giving a sad, dead-eyed performance. Hoyte von Hoytema, who shot Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, does a fantastic job, contrasting the dark, oppresive colours in the cabin with the stark, deathly white of the snow.
Spectre is a watchable slice of the Bond saga which pales in regard to two of the three films which preceded it. It's still heaps better than Quantum of Solace, if only because it always has a rough idea of where it is going even during its moments of writing conflict. But while its visual spectacle can give Casino Royale and Skyfall a run for their money, it doesn't have either the brains or the heart to rise above them. Bond fans will embrace it, but the rest of us will be expecting more effort next time around.


NEXT REVIEW: 8 Mile (2002)

Thursday, 20 April 2017

FIVE STAR FILM: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (UK/ USA, 2007)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall

One of the main accusations about Tim Burton is that he has essentially made the same film for more than thirty years. Burton's status as a latter-day auteur, with a distinctive visual style and approach to storytelling, has frequently left him open to the criticism that he is repeating himself. 'Burtonian' may not be as widespread an adjective as Kubrickian, Lynchian or Hitchcockian, but it comes with both the same pressure to live up to early promise and the same pitfalls of focussing on style at the expense of substance - a peril I discussed at length in my review of Wild at Heart.
It cannot be denied that Burton has had moments in his career where his heart just hasn't been in it - usually when he has wandered out of his Gothic comfort zone to make a quick buck, as was the case with Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes. But between the latter and the calamity that was Alice in Wonderland, Burton hit a purple patch with three films which reiterated just what a creative genius he can be at his best. Having set the bar high with Big Fish and followed it up splendidly with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he then delivered this film, which sits comfortably alongside Ed Wood as the crowning glory of his career.
If nothing else is true about Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd hereafter), it is a fantastic riposte to the notion that Burton had somehow grown soft and sentimental in his middle age. This was always a rather rich comment, given that some of his earlier work, like Batman Returns, had been (unfairly) criticised for being too dark and cold. But for those who found Big Fish too cheerful, this is the perfect antidote, returning us to the grim, dark world, at once oppressive and fantastic, that Burton has made his own.
When Mark Kermode reviewed the film on BBC Radio 5 Live, he described it as "the flipside of Edward Scissorhands", talking about how the look and manner of Johnny Depp's performance was a twisted inversion of that film's protagonist, turning Edward's innocent harming of those he loved into a conscious murderous crusade. There are also huge similarities in approach to Sleepy Hollow, not only with the 18-certificate violence but the emphasis on period detail and a community feeding on itself (quite literally, of course).
The story of Sweeney Todd is one of the hardiest in English literature, with its origins stretching back to the penny dreadfuls of Charles Dickens' day and the early fallout of the Industrial Revolution. As British cities rapidly expanded as people flocked from the countryside, public fears abounded about rising crime and unscrupulous business practices - including the means by which food was now being manufactured. The first appearance of Benjamin Barker, in 1846's The String of Pearls, married the fear of cannibalism to barbers of the day serving as surgeons - the red and white poles outside barbers' shops symbolised the blood and bandages of their secondary trade.
Burton sets out his intentions for Sweeney Todd in the elaborate opening credits, demonstrating both his fidelity to Stephen Sondheim's musical and his intrinsic understanding of its themes and tone. The mixing of blood and water, first in the clouds and finally in the sewers, is a brilliant visual metaphor for the way in which violence and vengeance contaminate everything they touch. Sondheim's overture, at once brooding and hysterical, puts us right in the edgy mood required for the plot to have impact, so that the second that Depp appears on screen, we feel intimidated.
Perhaps no film since Get Carter (or possibly The Last House on the Left) has so perfectly captured the self-destructive nature of revenge - how those bent on vengeance end up becoming consumed by their own misguided obsession. The initial telling of Lucy's apparent demise leads us to sympathise (at least somewhat) with Sweeney's plight, but by the time he has killed for the first time he has already crossed over into darkness. Eventually he becomes so fixated on killing Judge Turpin that he doesn't even recognise the woman he loved, slitting her throat without saying a word to her. Burton's rendering of both her death and Sweeney's are both graphic and beautiful, using their blood in a manner that would make Dario Argento proud.
The film is also interested in the complicity of all society in Sweeney's schemes, either by their direct involvement (Mrs Lovett and Toby) or their failure to intervene and stop him. One of the central lines comes outside the Old Bailey, when Judge Turpin asks Beadle Bamford whether the boy he just sentenced to death was guilty. Bamford mutters, "Well if he didn't do it, he had surely done something to warrant the hanging", to which Turpin replies, "What man has not?". What sounds like a platitude out of context is actually a telling remark on how society feeds on itself with no real regard for right and wrong - a theme later reflected in the song 'A Little Priest'.
This brings us on to the singing, one of the main bones of contention among fans of the original musical. If you are expecting the actors to sing with the rounded, showy polish exhibited on Broadway or the West End (the kind of performance that always looks rubbish on film), then you will be disappointed. But while the tone of the piece is decidedly operatic - all big emotions and hearts worn on sleeves - the subject matter lends itself to a rougher, more angular style of delivery. Depp and Helena Bonham Carter sing very well, and the fact that they don't sound like naturally rounded singers works entirely to their benefit.
The supporting cast beyond Depp and Carter is also really strong. The late Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as Judge Turpin, a part which, like Hans Gruber in Die Hard, is at turns darkly funny and deeply threatening. He sings like a deep bassoon and relishes being lecherous without ever over-playing it. Timothy Spall, who previously proved his singing credentials in Topsy-Turvy, struts through his part like a proud toad, again striking a balance between comedy and intimidation. And Sacha Baron Cohen, fresh off the back of Borat, gives one of his finest performances as Adolfo Pirelli; he's so charmingly ridiculous that he almost steals the show.
Sweeney Todd also succeeds in marrying Sondheim's darkly comic lyrics to Burton's distinctive visual imagery. The cramped and dank streets of London are like the corrupted, industrialised descendants of Sleepy Hollow, and Dariusz Wolski (who shot Dark City) brings out the deep reds and sharp silvers to create a world which is both gruesome and painstakingly beautiful. The city seems to stretch forever, like a nightmarish labyrinth with Sweeney and Mrs Lovett as its Minotaurs, while the seaside scene hilariously juxtaposes Burton's designs with a sugary setting. Best of all is the closing scene, which borrows from The Third Man and the 'Acid Queen' sequence in Ken Russell's Tommy to conjure up a truly masterful climax.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a stupendous triumph of a film, which both honours its source material and brings a unique approach to a well-worn story. Burton's storytelling and direction are absolutely superb, bringing out the rich, murky substance of the story while never neglecting its dark sense of humour. The visuals are stunning and the gore is wonderfully executed (ha ha), but we also care deeply about the characters. It is easily Burton's best film since Ed Wood, and ten years on it remains essential viewing.


NEXT REVIEW: Spectre (2015)

Friday, 14 April 2017

RIP Michael Ballhaus


This week European cinema lost one of its most accomplished and widely respected cinematographers. Michael Ballhaus, best known for his work with Martin Scorsese, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 81 following a short illness. Scorsese has already offered his own tribute to the man he described as "a precious and irreplacable friend". I would now like to add my words, limited though they are, to the chorus of mourning (which, given today is Good Friday, seems appropriate).
When I've paid tribute to other cinematographers, like Gilbert Taylor and Douglas Slocombe, I've consistently pointed to the fact that their profession is one of many in Hollywood which seldom gets the credit which it deserves. Many people who gain familiarity with a director's work tend to assume that every decision about a camera movement, or how a scene is lit, is done to the director. In fact, many of these decisions are a collaborative process between director and cinematographer, which often results in long-term partnerships (such as Roger Deakins with the Coen Brothers, or Wally Pfister with Christopher Nolan).
Ballhaus worked with Scorsese a total of seven times, starting on After Hours and finishing up with The Departed. Scorsese has credited Ballhaus with revitalising his career, giving him the confidence to experiment more with audience expectations. In the documentary Getting Made, Ballhaus talks about Scorsese's tendency to see the film already completed in his head, with his role being to decide whether such shots could be achieved in the real world. Their partnership created, amongst other things, the fantastic long tracking shot in Goodfellas where Henry and Karen enter the restaurant.
Away from his work with Scorsese, which brought him Oscar and BAFTA nominations, Ballhaus lent his keen eye to a number of other visually striking films. In the 1980s he worked with Paul Newman on The Glass Menagerie, rubbed shoulders with comedy legends James L. Brooks and Frank Oz on Broadcast News and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels respectively, and complimented Mike Nichols behind the camera on Working Girl. In the 1990s he lensed Bram Stoker's Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola before teaming up with Newman's Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford on Quiz Show. Even the few obvious duds in his career - Wild Wild West, for instance - are made more watchable by his work.
Should you wish to pay tribute to Ballhaus in amongst your long Easter weekend, I would recommend The Last Temptation of Christ or Goodfellas as great places to start. If you want to learn about Ballhaus' work on Goodfellas, you should watch Getting Made: The Making of Goodfellas on YouTube (Ballhaus' contribution begins at about 16:20). RIP.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

FIVE STAR FILM: Girl, Interrupted (1999)


Girl, Interrupted (USA, 1999)
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy

In my review of The Departed, I spoke about how winning an Oscar can often tie either a film or a person associated with it eternally to that achievement. That level of cinematic immortality (or in some cases infamy) is the level of success for which most actors and filmmakers would kill, even with the need to take the Academy's decisions both past and present with a pinch of salt. But if someone is rewarded for giving a particular performance or doing something especially well, it creates the pressure to always be that good (or always do that one thing) from thereon in.
It seems to be particularly the case with female Oscar winners that their careers begin to buckle under this newfound pressure. Julia Roberts has never topped Erin Brockovich, Halle Berry quickly faded after Monster's Ball, and both Tatum O'Neill and Shirley Temple saw a decline in the fortunes after their respective wins. There are male examples of this too (like Cuba Gooding Jr., for instance), but given the many twists and turns of Angelina Jolie's career, you may well put her in the same category. However, while her work on Girl, Interrupted is not her finest performance overall - that would be A Mighty Heart - it is the jewel in the crown of this cinematic masterpiece.
Given its subject matter and its status as an adaptation of a popular novel, it's very tempting to simply label Girl, Interrupted as the female One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Aside from the common setting of a mental hospital, both stories play with the concept of the unreliable narrator, both set up character dynamics based on manipulation and defiance of authority, and both end on a decidedly bittersweet note. Both authors also have front-line experience of the mental health industry, if such a word is not to crude; while Girl, Interrupted author Susanna Keysen spent two years as a patient on a psychiatric ward, Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey spent some time working as an orderly on the graveyard shift at a facility in California.
You would expect, given their respective backgrounds, that Cuckoo's Nest would take a structural perspective on institutionalisation (as The Shawshank Redemption later did) while Girl, Interrupted would be a personal, memory-driven story, like the original novel was. In fact, what's interesting about the film of Girl, Interrupted - directed and co-scripted by James Mangold - is that it is very interested in the structural problems present within the American system. It manages to pull off the same rare trick as Milos Forman's film, being simultaneously a deeply personal depiction of the nuances of mental illness and the ways in which the existing structures of American society let people down and dehumanise them.
Girl, Interrupted also pulls off another trick, namely being a period piece which still has applications to contemporary society. On the one hand, it is a fascinating time capsule of the late-1960s and the role of young people therein: American society is in the grip of unprecedented social change, with many of its most established and respected institutions being questioned at their core, and no-one truly knows how to deal with young people. While in other stories Susanna would have run away to join a rock band, or robbed a bank, or sought out spiritual enlightenment (a la Zabriskie Point), her parents lock her away so that they don't have to deal with her problems. They choose their dated values and maintaining their social standing over trying to understand their own children, foreshadowing the conservative backlash against the counter-culture that was already starting to creep in.
On the other hand, Girl, Interrupted is a more universal story of people who simply cannot help who they are. We aren't given a straightforward, overly pat explanation for why Suzanna ended up at the asylum; it's not put down to a family trauma, or blamed on her being 'sinful', or anything so cheap and inappropriate. Neither is her illness ever presented to us as being something that can be easily conquered, whether by positive thinking or taking the right number of pills: it's a painful, long-term anguish which some learn to live with and others tragically cannot face. Like Adrian Brody's character in The Pianist, Suzanna is not so much a hero as a survivor, and while she does break from the other characters by making it out in one piece, she has been irrevocably changed by her experience, for better and for worse.
Winona Ryder as an actress has always had a knack for capturing disconnection from other people, whether it's the older generation (Edward Scissorhands), her high school peers (Heathers) or her competitors (Black Swan). While Jolie often threatens to steal away the limelight, her performance is equally crucial to prevent the film from just being a collection of loud, angry, mad people about whom we would have no reason to care. Like Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys before her, she stays just the right side of busy and histrionic, making the outbursts convincing and meaningful but also allowing the quiet moments to speak volumes. It's a very fine performance which deserved to be recognised just as much as Jolie's.
As for Jolie herself, she deserved most if not all of the plaudits she received both then and now. I said in my review of Wanted that she "always been in her element inhabiting individuals who are in some way damaged, conflicted, morally ambiguous or self-doubting". She takes Lisa, who could just be a sociopathic, controlling bitch, and slowly but surely teases out all the character's frustrations, neuroses and her emptiness as a person. If you ever want to prove to a non-fan that there is more to Jolie than losing gorgeous or kicking ass, show them the sequence near the end of this film where she breaks down and attempts suicide. It's a gut-wrenchingly honest and powerful moment which goes some way towards cementing this film's greatness.
One of the criticisms that was made of Girl, Interrupted when it was released is that it was "melodramatic" - in other words, that Mangold had toned down and smoothed out the book to give the audience some form of closure over the character. Keysen herself was displeased with the adaptation, branding the section in which Susanna and Lisa try to escape as "drivel" and criticising the filmakers for "inventing" whole sections which never reflected her story. It's difficult to argue that this is the most faithful adaptation in the history of cinema, but as with The Imitation Game there is an argument for departing from the letter of historical fact if a deeper, more thematic truth is presented to the audience as a result.
The key scene in the film, if not the key line, comes during Lisa's breakdown, when Suzanna declares: "Maybe everybody out there is a liar. And maybe the whole world is "stupid" and "ignorant". But I'd rather be in it. I'd rather be fucking in it, then down here with you." This is the major breakthrough that the character experiences, acknowledging her own failures and the shortcomings of the world outside, but realising that the only way out is to learn to deal with it, one day at a time.
If that revelation, and that whole scene, had come out of nowhere, then the film would have felt melodramatic, with the characters having to bend to the needs of the plot after an hour or so of character-driven storytelling. But the escape beforehand lends it greater credibility, or at least makes the development more believable for an audience which has not endured her suffering. The taste of the outside world Susanna is given with Lisa and Daisy is bittersweet, and what joy they experience from their release is short-lived, shattered by Daisy's demise and Lisa's callous attitude towards it. This is not a fairy tale in which the outside world is free from trouble; it is a different kind of prison, albeit one in which there are many different ways of dealing with what ails us. If nothing else, Girl, Interrupted deserves credit for taking such a mature approach while pitching to a predominantly younger audience.
Girl, Interrupted also looks fantastic, thanks in part to cinematographer Jack N. Green, who previously worked with Clint Eastwood on Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County. Both he and Mangold share a love of period detail and a desire to use historical quirks to shed light on character and mood; the drug store with simply 'Drugs' on the shopfront is both an accurate reflection of the setting and a nod to the blunt, unhelpful nature of the treatment. Mangold's compositions alternate between intimate and intimidating, judging when to switch very deftly, and the colour scheme beautifully reflects the worn, frayed nature of the protagonists' mental states; the screen is filled with browns and worn yellows, the white surgical robes are dusty, and even the hospital has a tumble-down, faded quality.
Girl, Interrupted is a powerful and compelling examination of mental illness which has aged extremely well and still resonates with modern audiences. While the central performances remain both its driving force and its most famous characteristic, the film has great depth and honesty throughout, shedding light on a lot of important issues regarding mental health, abuse, manipulation and dependency. Regardless of what Susanna Keysen may think, it is a truly stunning film that should be seen by anyone who has the stomach for it. 


For more of my thoughts on Angelina Jolie's career, check out my WhatCulture! article on her work.

NEXT REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)