An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Changeling (2008)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
Changeling; dir: Clint Eastwood; Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Jason Butler Harner. Cert: 15 (2008)
With the Time’s Up movement focusing our attention so firmly on the position of women in Hollywood, it is somewhat ironic that one of the strongest, most engaging, most heart-rending so-called women’s movies has been delivered by one of toughest of tough guys Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood maybe old school Hollywood but clearly his attitude is as fresh and lively as if he was a bright-eyed youngster. And this film, along with his Million Dollar Baby, prove that he has no issue with talented actresses claiming the spotlight. Clearly, the story is the only thing that matters to this famously taciturn film-maker.
Changeling tells an extraordinary story, made more remarkable by the fact it is based on real events.
In addition to the powerful story, the other reason that this film grips its audience from the very opening scenes is that Eastwood gives his cast a very believable world to inhabit.
Changeling is set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and early 1930s but this isn’t picture-book LA, existing in the shadow of glamorous and glittering Hollywood, this is poor suburban LA. This is the era of The Depression.
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Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single-mother who works in the local telephone exchange, earning just enough to keep the wolf from the door.
She is grateful to have a job and she and her son Walter live a happy but not a well-off existence. Eastwood has deposited this loving pair in an almost documentary world. Everything looks worn, nothing is new, but everything is functional. The cars, the trolly buses have a look of wear and tear about them.
Early in the film Walter goes missing while Christine is at work. Understandably, Christine is distraught and reports his disappearance to the LAPD who, at first, have little luck is tracing her son, then just as all hope is beginning to slip away, they gleefully report that Walter has been found out of town.
Christine is escorted to the local train station to be reunited with her son but when they are reunited, it is immediately apparent to Christine that this isn’t her son. Faced with the hordes of press and the insistence of the police, she is dazzled and dazed by the occasion and is told to take ‘her son’ home.
But, it is once the pair are back home, that the film really kicks into high gear. Christine discovers that this new Walter is three inches shorter than her son. Just to add extra weight to her argument she takes this imposer to the family dentist, who confirms that the teeth of new Walter don’t conform to the dental records of the Walter who went missing.
In the face of official indifference, Christine’s case is taken up by crusading preacher the Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who had been campaigning against police corruption, on his weekly radio programme.
Eventually Christine’s dogged lobbying of the police department becomes an annoying embarrassment and she is committed to a secure mental hospital, certified as crazy purely on the say-so of the local police captain.
Meanwhile, a determined detective named Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) is led to the buried bodies of 20 young boys on an isolated chicken ranch outside Winesville, California. Could there be a connection between the bodies and Walter’s disappearance?
One of the most truly shocking elements of this true story is the fact that mental illness (real or imagined) was treated as a crime. Collins joins many other female prisoners whose only crime was to annoy the authorities. The institution drugs them, performs shock treatment, punishes any protest.
Thankfully Rev Briegleb manages to spring Christine and she becomes drawn into the new investigation at the chicken ranch and we are introduced to Jason Butler Harner as the disturbed Gordon Northcott, who may or may not know Walter’s true fate.
Eastwood and scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski never strike a false note, and Angelina Jolie is riveting in the central role. She disappears into Christine, giving us somebody who is physically vulnerable, and terrified half out of her wits, yet who is also brave, resourceful and utterly convincing.
This is one Jolie’s and Eastwood’s greatest achievements.