Having introduced Liv Tyler to the world in his debut Heavy and convinced Stallone to play a fatty in Cop Land, James Mangold now pairs two of Hollywood's more challenging (and downright beautiful) actresses - and the dual performances of Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder are the key to the success of Girl, Interrupted.
The film, based on the bestselling reminiscences of Susanna Kaysen, was something of a personal project for star and executive producer Ryder. She herself suffered anxiety attacks and spent time in hospital at the age of 20, so she had particular concerns in bringing Girl, Interrupted to the screen.
Her portrayal of Susanna is so finely crafted that the empathy is evident, but what enhances it further is the contrast with Jolie's energised Lisa, the resident sexy sociopath. Susanna falls for her apparent fearlessness and the liberation she seems to represent. The belligerent, irrepressible Lisa has something of Jolie's own dangerous wild-child image, but she's also invested with a complex mixture of cruelty and vulnerability. Around this central partnership ebb and flow the other girls and staff on the ward: DuVall's Oz-obsessed compulsive liar Georgina is refreshingly frank, and Murphy invests Daisy with a fragility and aggression that successfully summarises the character's history of abuse. But, along with Goldberg and Redgrave (the boss doctor), the parts don't have enough screentime to elevate them wholly beyond a familiar One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style crew of misfits.
The hospital itself is presented by cinematographer Jack Green as a warm, almost homely place. Only the basement corridors the girls sneak around at night become anything more sinister, in a scene when Lisa reads aloud comments about the girls from Susanna's stolen journal. This insightful bitchery contrasts with the girls' arid casefile notes, which Lisa hands out like graduation certificates on a nocturnal break-in to their doctor's office. The diagnoses present many of the inmates as only a small step from normality. In Susanna's case it's the upsetting of her parents' middle-class status quo, more than her personality, that resulted in her incarceration. And in that sense she is closer to writer Elizabeth Wurtzel and her memoir Prozac Nation than to any more disturbed, screaming loon.
So, while Girl, Interrupted struggles slightly to elevate itself beyond meaty episodes of female bonding, it is the indictment of a society which places a bewildered adolescent in an asylum to process her into a `better' citizen that gives it any narrative backbone. Susanna's journey to redemption is presented as one of self-discovery, but the darker undertone is that to be released, she must toe the line. Together, Mangold and Ryder have created a solid, thoughtful, and effective drama.
Powerful central performances from a subtle, intense Ryder and an energised, compelling Jolie are cradled by an excellent supporting cast in this finely crafted tale of adolescent girls' mental health problems and middle-class society's inability to deal with them.