Changeling is based upon a true story concerning the disappearance of young boy in 1920s Los Angeles. Desperate for some positive PR in a time of public mistrust, the LAPD duly reunite the boy with his single-parent mother (Angelina Jolie). Unfortunately for all concerned the wrong child has been returned and when the mother questions the LAPD’s mistake, her dedication as a parent and psychological wellbeing are brought into question. With the help of a radio preacher (John Malkovich), the mother undertakes a labyrinthine quest to find her real son and to end the incompetence and corruption which blight the LAPD.
Were you to pitch the plot of Changeling as a work of fiction, it would most likely be dismissed as a completely unbelievable story which lurched awkwardly between established genres. Mark Twain’s adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” very much applies here and without the reputation of someone like Clint Eastwood to mastermind the project it seems highly unlikely this film would have otherwise been made. It’s testament to his vision and reputational clout that a story which could so easily have been simplified or twisted to fit more neatly in a pigeonhole has survived wholesale as a rare example of the contemporary Hollywood genre-straddling epic.
Changeling’s muted palette and period setting (like many of Eastwood’s films) at first fascinate but soon fade from consciousness as plot developments are quickly revealed. It’s refreshing to see cinematography used as a subtle subconscious aid to storytelling where lesser, insecure productions might resort to highlighting how much money is up on the screen as a selling point. Thus the usual game of “spot the continuity error” is avoided as the story, setting and characters are so seamlessly intertwined.
Jolie is brilliant and seems to move effortlessly between various states of despondency, torment and retribution. The narrative gives her every opportunity to slip into extended bouts of histrionics as she is dragged through the entire spectrum of human emotions; yet but for rare moments of necessary amplification, her performance remains understated throughout. It’s a brilliantly waged war of attrition, each seemingly prosaic acting moment coalescing into a fully formed and utterly convincing characterisation. Jolie ensures that Changeling is as much about the actions of a bereaved mother as it is about the events which she endures and given the epic nature of the story this is a genuinely notable achievement.
John Malkovich thankfully takes a break from his recent performances of playing a mad hyper-realistic version of himself. The converse of Jolie’s initial blank canvas, he begins as a borderline stereotype before events allow the nuance of his character to be revealed. It’s a dangerous game trying to disprove such strong first impressions, but the performance is remarkably effective and undoubtedly helped by the film’s writing which is excellent throughout. Jeffrey Donovan’s performance, as the arrogant, misogynistic police captain who causes much of the mother’s problems, is also outstanding. The remorseless pride in his actions to the bitter end throws into stark contrast the vindication of other characters which is such a prominent theme of the film.
The plot, though complicated and intriguing, is never really about grand revelations and Eastwood’s direction reflects this; a series of restrained but perfectly distilled cinematic moments. The only possible consequence of superfluous shot trickery (sweeping crane shots of period street life etc.) would be to distract from the nuance that is so important to the character development. In many scenes, the characters and events appear destined to collide with seemingly inevitable consequences. But rather than trying to shock with improbable twists, the film is confident enough to let these brilliantly realised characters play out the inevitable; entertaining the audience by the process rather than the result. That said, there is a single “game-changing” moment at around the half way mark which I will not discuss as it takes the film in a completely new and unpredictable direction. The events of the latter half of the film are equally entertaining as characters’ positions of power are flipped providing the opportunity for further insight into these genuinely three dimensional characters.
Clint Eastwood was 78 years old at the release of Changeling. Far from being an obstacle to success, his wealth of experience and instinct for storytelling prove invaluable in holding together the film’s myriad thematic shifts. By concentrating on character, the great narrative twists and turns are always believably grounded in the reactions of a bereaved mother struggling to cope with what the world throws at her. This is genuinely a film with something for everyone. After "Letters from Iwo Jima" (probably the best war film in a decade) Changeling provides yet more evidence that Eastwood is still very much in the prime of his directorial career.