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Changeling
cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Colm Feore, Jeffrey Donovan, and Amy Ryan

director: Clint Eastwood

142 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal blu-ray region B retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Changeling is Clint Eastwood's 31st film, one of five he has released in the last four years. Although with Gran Torino the now-elderly star has announced his probable retirement from acting, in other ways he shows little other sign of slowing down, being now in the middle of 'The Human Factor', due out next year. At the tail end of an illustrious career, Eastwood's stock as a director has remained high throughout, his concerns consistent. He learnt his trade at the side of such American professionals as Don Siegel but, arguably, has superseded his mentor as the years have passed.

Based on true events, Changeling continues the feminist strand in some of Eastwood's work, where the casual, callous treatment of women, taken either as the main or side event, forms part of the narrative. Set in 1928 Los Angeles, this one is the tale of mother Christine Collins, working as a switchboard supervisor, juggling her responsibilities at home with her duties at work. Called upon at short notice to fill in for a sick colleague, she is obliged to leave her eight-year-old son Walter alone for a day. Upon finally making it back home, he's vanished. After some anguish, a boy is discovered by the police, claiming to be Walter - but he's not and the corrupt police don't like being told a mistake has been made...

Eastwood's film is sturdy, reliable, involving and includes an outstanding performance by Angelina Jolie as the mother who won't give up. If there's an unspoken 'but' in that last sentence, ironically it's because the film is so thoroughly excellent all round, but no more. The art department is painstaking in its recreation of period detail, the narrative deft in projecting its chief protagonist through various trials and tribulations (including traumatic incarceration in a mental ward for her obstinacy); John Malkovich plays well as the crusading Reverend Briegleb, who takes Collins' cause to the wider public, and so on. Even the film's less satisfactory elements, being those for the most part surrounding Northcott (Jason Butler Harner) the child abductor - whose representation as an unbalanced individual is a little too exaggerated, and the associated gallows scene has been questioned by some critics - do not really detract from the overall achievement. But a thoroughly good, decent movie is not necessarily a great one and it lacks an edge at its centre.

Changeling locates the dark heart of its city in the corrupt administration of justice, doled out by well-played cops and officials who might, never the less, have strolled in from any other good movie. The immorality reaches out of city hall to pervade and ruin the lives of those who cross it. Polanski's Chinatown also deals with corruption, albeit at a slightly later date, festering at the heart of personal and civic society in historic L.A. But there the malign influence spreads outwards from the individual and family towards the environment. It's a reverse process which starts that masterpiece off with a cynical, dark heart denied to the less scabrous family drama sitting at the core of Changeling: that of Collins' separation and continual love for her missing son.

Christine Collins seeks justice. The sort of justice that will do is never in doubt, right down the verdict of the final trial, scripted with the help of existing records. To take one more observation from the earlier film, in Chinatown the justice required is often fateful and unclear, making the reaching for it seem far more dangerous and, perhaps, more memorable. Missing persons, unsolved mysteries and corrupt officials are usually the province of the private investigator. Christine Collins' reluctant assumption of the role of heroine, aided by her reverend friend and supporter, is something the story made essential - even if a story played out through the persona of a distraught mother could easily become melodrama.

It's to Eastwood's credit that it does not. Despite Collins' lurid treatment in the mental home, electric shock treatment and all, the director's restrained treatment of the subject matter, as well as the inherent dignity of Jolie's character, all buoy the film up, whilst Malkovich's dignified contribution to proceedings adds a further touch of class. Eastwood's empathy with actors is such that Jolie, in the DVD interview accompanying the movie, claims at one point that she only wants to work with Eastwood from now on - a flattering exaggeration, but doubtless reflecting the high regard he gets from colleagues. The director's calm, proficient touch is everywhere until, it must be said, even the matter of serial child torture seems de-sensationalised, the unpalatable made practically palatable. Perhaps this is one reason why the execution scene and asylum shock therapy is emphasised as it is, in order to restore something of the necessary horror and revulsion back to the narrative.

Critical niggling aside, none of this is to say that Changeling isn't a success on its own terms, deserving of the high mark I give it here. Excellence brings it own rewards and here's a movie which never drags, provides consistent, entertaining drama and which shows old-style film making at its best. It's a shame that the extras don't support the project more confidently on the blu-ray disc. Once again the vastly superior storage facility of the format is under-utilised; though the film itself looks splendid, the period sepia look convincingly created by cinematographer Tom Stern. The buyer gets two short (18 minutes total), mainly self-congratulatory, documentaries. A look at the historical events, which inspired Eastwood's scriptwriter, was however a pre-requisite. So, as part of the U-Control feature there's Lost Angeles: Then And Now - in which one can explore the visual history of Los Angeles and compare the 1920s' city to today's, as well as viewing archival images and documents revealing the real-life individuals and story portrayed in the film.
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