Screenwriters: J. Michael Straczynski
Starring: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Devon Conti
Running Time: 142mins
If it wasn't prefaced by the words 'This is a true story', Changeling would be too tough to swallow. The power of the story is in its utter incredibility and, viewed through the lens of director Clint Eastwood, even more shocking for its sense of the mundane. Angelina Jolie is a picture of anguish as Christine Collins, a single mother living in 1920s Los Angeles when few people questioned the authority of police and politicians. But when her young son is kidnapped, Christine is forced to do just that.
Nine-year-old Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) disappears from their suburban home while Christine is out working at a telephone company. The LAPD are slow to react and, five months later, when it seems the trail has gone cold, Christine finally gets word that Walter has been found. In a scene loaded with tension, press hounds descend upon a railway station where the LAPD have arranged for the reunion to take place. They need the good publicity, but Christine threatens to rain on their parade when she points out that the boy (Devon Conti) is not her son.
With that revelation, the film veers into spooky, almost surreal territory. The child sweetly insists that he is Walter and Christine is forced to take him home. A scene where she tucks him up in bed, knowing he is an impostor, is just downright sinister. Jeffrey Donovan brings a note of menace too as the Captain of the LAPD , fobbing off Christine with hints at her addled mental state. Clearly, the fact that she is a single woman has a bearing on the way she is treated. When Jones finally loses his rag, he accuses Christine of wanting to the ditch the kid for a fancy-free lifestyle, then sections her in a psychiatric unit populated by dozens of other gals who dared to challenge the system. Unfortunately, Eastwood lingers too long on this part for historically inaccurate scenes of electroshock therapy (not introduced until the 1930s).
Of course Angelina Jolie won an Oscar in 2000 for playing a psychiatric patent in Girl, Interrupted, though it was a flashy, overrated turn. In the Collins role, she does do some of the anticipated hand-wringing, cardigan-tugging, plate-smashing, and shrieking - to include the obvious trailer moment "I want my son back!" - but, overall, it is a more carefully measured performance that sees Christine evolve from a mere victim into a force for change. On the outside, a typically shouty John Malkovich takes her cause into the public arena as a local preacher and activist Reverend Gustav Briegleb. He is dedicated to exposing corruption within the LAPD and, when he joins forces with Christine, it lends the story yet another dimension.
The title Changeling could refer to the various shifts in tone - it feels like many films rolled into one. As usual, Eastwood lets the story move at a natural pace and that heightens the bizarre situations Christine finds herself in. But there is also a lack of cohesion. The dynamic between Christine and the boy who claims to be her son is fascinating and, if the script were more closely observed, it might have been the fulcrum. As it is, Eastwood skims over this, along with the guilt Christine must have felt for leaving Walter unattended. That also robs the film of complexity when it comes to reflecting on the reckless way she is treated by authorities. What we're left with is a straightforward sob story; a haunting, matter-of-fact depiction of cruel injustice that couldn't fail to touch a nerve in any context. Of all the indignities Christine endures, it is the overwhelming indifference which makes a lasting impression.
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