Time was, actors who ventured into directing were treated with disdain verging on contempt – look what happened to poor old Charles Laughton. One actor changed all that.
The guy who started out playing a sidekick called Rowdy Yates in TV series Rawhide has matured into one of the most universally respected
directors in the business.
But nobody’s perfect – not even Clint Eastwood, whose latest starts strong but ultimately doesn’t know when to stop. First though, praise where it’s due. The film’s recreation of ’20s LA, with its rattling streetcars and jalopies, is detailed and utterly convincing.
Maybe Clint has such a spot-on feel for the era and milieu because, only a few years later, that’s where he himself was born. “Is this period footage?” you find yourself wondering, before it subtly segues from monochrome to muted colour.
The opening scenes played out between single working mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and her young son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) work just fine. Jolie has said she was channelling memories of her own mother and there’s an unforced, appealing warmth between the two.
J Michael Straczynski’s script draws on a real-life case – in 1928, Collins’ nine-year-old son vanished. After a nationwide police hunt, a boy roughly resembling him showed up claiming to be the missing child.
When Collins protested he wasn’t, the LAPD refused to believe her – and when she persisted, they tossed her into a psych ward.
It’s a powerful story, no question, and speaks volumes about the corruption of the LAPD and society’s attitude to women at the period. “You’re getting emotional, Mrs Collins,” she’s patronisingly told when she points out that the boy they’ve brought her is three inches shorter than her son.
And when she adds that the substitute boy is circumcised, which Walter wasn’t, there’s palpable shock – nice women didn’t mention such things. So far, so gripping. But then flaws creep in. The visuals occasionally turn black-and-white and so too, alas, does the characterisation.
The good guys – the one honest cop (Michael Kelly), the Presbyterian pastor (John Malkovich in a strange blond permed wig) – are staunchly virtuous, while the bad ones are unstintingly villainous.
As Christine, Jolie emotes up a storm and then some. But after the umpteenth shot of her tear-stained, kohleyed, blood-lipsticked face screaming, “He’s not my son!”, the unworthy thought ‘Oscar bid’ slips irresistibly into the mind.
It also doesn’t help that, once things start to go her way, pretty well every character – good and bad – lines up to pay tribute to her courage.
Eastwood’s own score aids and abets the process, ladling washes of mournful gloop over a glut of emotional scenes.
Changeling also has almost as many endings as The Return Of The King. As it pushes on to the middle of the next decade, you begin to wonder if we’re in for a ’60s coda, with a balding Walter showing up to weep in the arms of a white-haired Christine.
The story’s strong – it doesn’t need any sentimental frosting. You can’t help picturing how it would have played under the sardonic gaze of a James Ellroy. But once you invoke the shade of LA Confidential, the game’s pretty much over.
By Philip Kemp