movie film review | chris tookey


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  Changeling Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
5.98 /10
Christine Collins - Angelina Jolie , Rev. Gustav Briegleb - John Malkovich
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Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: J. Michael Straczynski

Released: 2008
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 141

A Clint Eastwood masterpiece.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Do you want some news to cheer you up? Clint Eastwood is making the best movies of his life right now, and he’s 78 years old. His latest is not only among the finest pictures of 2008; Changeling is right up there with the big emotional experiences that cinema has to offer.

It contains a wonderfully passionate, sometimes ferocious leading performance by Angelina Jolie (pictured), who deserves to be a formidable contender for the Oscar as Best Actress. The ensemble cast – packed with little-known character actors – is among the strongest ever assembled.

Huge credit should also go to journalist and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, who makes an astonishing big-screen debut at the age of 54.

Not only did he discover the story and research it. He has organised it into a film that abandons the conventional Hollywood three-act structure – for the extremely good reason that it just ain’t the way it happened - and fashioned a true story so fascinating that it should hold you gripped for every one of its 141 minutes.

In 1928 Los Angeles, single mother Christine Collins (Jolie) returned home to discover that her nine year-old son Walter had vanished. After months of searching, a boy calling himself Walter Collins turned up in Illinois, and his relieved mother scraped together the cash to bring him home.

The trouble was that the boy wasn’t Walter Collins at all. He was three inches shorter, he was circumcised, his dental records didn’t match, and he didn’t recognise his former schoolfriends or teachers. Amazingly, none of these revelations deterred the LAPD Police Chief James E. “Two Guns” Davis (Colm Feore) and the head of his juvenile investigation unit Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who declared the case closed.

The more Christine Collins protested that the child wasn’t hers, the more mentally unstable she appeared to the male authorities. When she engaged the help of outspoken pastor Gustav A. Briegleb (John Malkovich, interestingly odd), whose sermons and radio broadcasts declared the LAPD guilty of longtime corruption, she was arrested and taken to a psychiatric ward.

I won’t tell you more, except that the story takes us into areas evocative of such memorable psychological melodramas as The Snake Pit and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and then into an even more nightmarish world.

Jason Butler Harner gives a memorably creepy performance as Gordon Northcott, a farmer with something to hide. Michael Kelly is equally outstanding as Detective Lester Ybarra, whose discoveries blew the Christine Collins case wide open, while Geoff Pierson radiates decency and determination as S.S.Hahn, the mother’s crusading “pro bono” lawyer.

There is the sense throughout of a film that refuses to pull its punches. Eastwood has clearly reached the age when he does as he damn well likes. He’s interested in telling the truth and making classic films, not merely turning a profit.

As a riveting picture of the Los Angeles underbelly, this is on a par with the great LA Confidential.

It also develops into a coruscating critique of male sexism. All the same, it’s not too tough a watch, for there are elements of black humour in the bone-headedness of men unwilling to countenance the possibility that a woman might know her own child better than they do.

Changeling is among the finest films Eastwood has made, and an all too rare example of a Hollywood film that’s been made for grown-ups.

It is remarkably craftsmanlike in its evocation of period, with few verbal infelicities - though someone’s reference to serial-killing is an anachronism, for the term was coined in the 1970s by FBI man Robert Ressler.

The story-telling is consummate, and what a mind-bogglng story it is. It unfolds in constantly unexpected ways, which gives it the feeling of real life; and the explanations – such as the false Walter’s excuse for his behaviour – are so crazy that they could only be the truth.

There isn’t a weak performance, but Jolie is the revelation. She shows miraculous depth as an ordinary mother who doesn’t want to make waves, but is then forced into situations where she has to make a stand. She’s only Eastwood’s second heroine in the whole of his directing career, but this is a landmark female performance to rank alongside Hilary Swank’s in Million Dollar Baby.

The film is also a splendid expose of political corruption. Though male chauvinism isn’t as toxic today, much of the subject-matter, including its warning against allowing those in power to cover up mistakes, establish a police state and spin the “news” against anyone who crosses them, remains as powerful and relevant as ever.

I’m always wary of using that overused word “masterpiece”, but this is one film that deserves the accolade. I urge you to see it, if only to remind yourself that cinema doesn’t have to be the artistic equivalent of junk food. This is haute cuisine, served to perfection by an all-time-great.

A final note on the facts behind the movie, which I would advise you not to read until after you have seen it:

Possibly in order for Changeling not to be too depressing to bear, or to avoid accusations of homophobia, Eastwood soft-pedals some of the details concerning murderous paedophilia. He prefers not to delve into Gordon Northcott’s revealing family background.

His mother, who doesn’t appear in the movie, helped him with his crimes, for which she received a life sentence, and his father (who had died in a lunatic asylum) had sodomized him since the age of ten. Another indication that this was far from a normal family is that one of Northcott’s uncles was also found guilty of murder years later, and died in San Quentin Prison while serving a life term.

Eastwood also ignores the probability that the kidnappings were, in part, financially motivated. Part of Northcott’s confession was that he hired his victims out to wealthy Californian perverts, whom he named. The film-makers choose to ignore the fact that they were never brought to justice.

I imagine that Eastwood left out these details because he wished to keep the focus of his movie on Christine Collins, bring some kind of closure to his film, and leave us in a comparatively hopeful frame of mind.

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