Changeling is a hard film to pigeonhole, genre-wise. When I sat down to watch it having only seen the trailer, I was expecting an out-and-out missing child drama (if that counts as a genre). In 1928 in Los Angeles, a woman named Christine Collins’ nine-year-old son Walter vanishes. After a nationwide police hunt, a boy who looks a bit like him comes forward, claiming to be the missing child. Christine is convinced that the boy is an impostor and sets out to prove it, putting herself at odds with the authorities. But there’s a whole lot more than this to this film. Horror, courtroom drama, feminist family drama, film noir – it’s all in there. If anything, the trailer does the film a bit of a disservice. While obviously Walter going missing and being replaced by another child is the catalyst for everything else that happens in the film, that’s really not what it’s about.
As a feminist drama it works really well – Jolie is seen as hysterical, unreliable and ultimately, insane, just for trying to stand up for her belief that this boy is not her son. Even in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence (dental records and the fact that the new Walter has not only shrunk but also been circumcised), the authorities refuse to believe her. That then leads us to an LA Confidential style exposure of police corruption, via a pretty nasty child murderer who provides the horror (Gordon Stewart Northcott who carried out the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, killing and molesting at least three boys, including Walter Collins, and maybe as many as 20), winding up at a tense courtroom drama as Collins fights the city to prove she’s right.
The words ‘A true story’ appear at the beginning of Changeling. Note the lack of ‘Based on…’. This story is apparently almost 100 per cent true – scriptwriter J Michael Straczynski’s put it together from newspaper files and City Hall records, only doctoring a couple of elements (Christine Collins’ husband was actually in prison and Northcott’s mother assisted in his molesting and murdering of small boys – which is actually more sinister). This also gives you a clue to the fact that this probably isn’t going to end that well. Which it doesn’t for Walter, but the Collins’ case exposed the corruption that lay at the heart of the police force and led to a change in the law meaning that the police could no longer lock dissenters (for which read inconvenient people – witnesses to police skulduggery, hookers who refused to shut up and so on) up in nuthouses with nary a by-your-leave. This is Hollywood but not as we know it – a hotbed of corruption and sleaze.
Generally I’m not a Jolie fan (mainly cos I’m jealous of her everything). But she turns in a worthy performance here. Full of grief and anger, the more she’s knocked back, the stronger she gets (like Obi-Wan Kenobi). The desperation in her eyes is at times heart-breaking and screams Oscar nom, which she duly got. Some variation on the line ‘He’s not my son!’ might’ve been nice though. But she did learn to roller skate in high heels. The woman’s got class.
My first thought when we meet John Malkovich’s character Reverend Gustav Briegleb is that he’s going to be a nasty religious nutbag. But (Malkovich in shock nice guy role!) he actually turns out to be Christine’s guiding light, busting her out of the mental home and standing up for her in a way that no one else does. He never once doubts her story.
Jason Thomas Butler Harner as Gordon Stewart Northcott, child murderer supremo, is excellent, all twitchy psycho. And the scene where he’s executed is wince-making in its attention to detail – you even hear the sound of his neck breaking.
Clint Eastwood has become one of the most respected directors around after the likes of Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima. He’s actually been doing it for longer than you might think – so far he has 30 films under his belt as director. Having been on the wrong end of fussy directors as an actor, he’s made a point of having no Kubrick-esque insistence on take after take until it’s perfect and has become known for his relaxed style. This unhurried pace shows in his work. And although he was handed this fantastic story on a plate, he does a powerful job with it. The backdrop alone is amazing, a mixture of real and CG. The meticulous recreation of ’20s LA is flawless and completely convincing, to the point where I wondered if some of it was period footage (it isn’t).
And apparently there’s no end to Eastwood’s talents – he also wrote the music. It’s slightly odd as it’s so unfussy that it sometimes feels incongruous with the horribleness of what’s going on onscreen. Cleverly though, the jazz-ness of it recalls film noir, another genre the film embraces.
So far, so good. But it’s by no means perfect. There’s little in the way of characterisation – the good guys are perfect, the bad guys are evil. Some of the scenes with the shock therapy in the asylum verge on the melodramatic. The whole thing does go on a bit – it could’ve been cut down in places. Christine’s reaction to Walter not being in the house when she gets back from work is strangely on the down low. And I would’ve liked to have seen a bit more interaction between Collins and the changeling child. Despite the trailers making this aspect seem like the focus of the story, it’s actually a very small part of it and the impostor’s motives are never fully explored. Even though he may have wanted nothing more than a mother and a comfortable home, did he really think the scam was going to work? And, most importantly, just how does Jolie’s lipstick stay so perfect throughout?
But, those niggles aside, Changeling is a strong, moving and compelling thriller, which will leave you shocked that almost all of it actually happened.