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Changeling (2008,USA)

10/07/2011

Director: Clint Eastwood     Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan

If the tabloids are to be believed, kids today are living the most imperilled lives in human history, exposed like never before to armies of devious, leering sexual predators who lurk in the shadows just waiting for the opportunity to do them harm. Within society there is a perception that you can’t trust anyone these days, as if unspeakable acts of cruelty towards children is an entirely modern phenomenon, a sign of the decline of community. It’s refreshing then when a film like Changeling comes along to remind us that human beings were just as horrible to each other eighty years ago as they are today.

Focusing on the story of Christine Collins (Jolie) and the disappearance of her son Walter it makes for remarkably harrowing viewing. Five months after her son vanishes without trace Christine is reunited with Walter courtesy of the LAPD only to discover that the boy in question is not her son. Her attempts to convince a police department terrified of looking like fools in the media that they have made a mistake don’t just fall on deaf ears but earn her some pretty ghastly treatment at the hands of the authorities for daring to question them. While the police channel their energies towards undermining Christine’s credibility (not to mention sanity) the unsavoury truth about what really happened to Walter comes, purely by chance, to light.

Writer J. Michael Straczynski (of Babylon 5 fame) spent a year researching the Collins case from original legal documents concerning the incident and put the script together from these. As a result there is no reason to suspect that there has been much artistic licence taken with the story, indeed  some of the scenes are reputedly word for word reconstructions from original courtroom transcripts. With this in mind the ordeal that Christine Collins went through in order to prove her son was still missing and the boy that had been returned to her was an imposter seems all the more disturbing.

Initially belittled and ridiculed by Captain Jones (Donovan) of the LAPD her insistence that it is the police that are at fault, backed up by medical records and statements from her son’s teachers, eventually leads to her being committed to a psychiatric hospital (a typically brutal and tortuous 1920’s psychiatric hospital) in order to get her out of the way. With each new cruelty inflicted on her by the authorities the appalling way in which women were regarded and treated in the twenties is graphically exposed and it really is horrific. It’s hard to believe that in such recent history it was not only possible but commonplace for such horrendous mistreatment to be doled out to those who the authorities deemed an inconvenience. Jolie’s portrayal of the ordeal is tremendous, her descent into self doubt and bordeline madness is entirely convincing and rather moving, as are the flashes of inner strength that shine through when everything seems against her. Contrasted with Jeffrey Donovan’s spineless, scheming police Captain it creates some serious tension at the core of the film, the pair effectively engaging in a battle of wits, with Jones pitching his vastly superior resources against Christine’s unbreakable determination. It’s exciting stuff.

As the movie unfolds and the genuine Walter’s fate becomes evident the film takes an even more harrowing turn, evoking some of the plot and thematic elements of Eastwood’s equally grim 2003 film Mystic River with its focus on the murder of a child. Five years later and Clint has managed to resist any temptation to paint the situation as a black and white, clearly deliniated set of circumstances, injecting Changeling with the same moral ambiguity that can be found in the earlier film. It raises questions about authority, responsibility and retribution in subtle shades of grey without ever losing sight of the wrongness of things, especially the blurring of the lines between criminal and cop.

The relationship between the corrupt police and the news media eager to lap up a good story with only a handful of dissenting moralists willing to stand up against it lends the film a surprising amount of contemporary relevance given the recent developments with a well known UK tabloid and as always there is a certain, lightly depressing comfort to be gained from the knowledge that little really changes and the institutions of our so-called civilised world really haven’t changed much in the last eighty years. This resonance helps to dispel the notion that people were somehow different in the twenties and serves as a reminder that barring a handful of social attitudes which have thankfully improved over the years, there isn’t much to seperate us from the period setting.

I think it would be a bit of a misnomer to describe the film as entertaining. Harrowing, yes. Interesting, undoubtedly. Entertaining would be a stretch. But it is an impressive piece of work and a far cry from the usual blockbuster fare you might associate with Angelina Jolie. Grimly realistic, genuinely shocking and emotionally affecting, I definitely recommend it.

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