A cloche-wearing madonna, Angelina Jolie is the porcelain personification of trembling courage and devoted motherhood in “Changeling.” As Christine Collins, entire scenes exist solely for the world’s most famous collector of international orphans to allow her eyes to well up as, clutching her hands over her mouth, she gives in to despair of ever finding Walter, her kidnapped son. Other times, the facade shatters and she shrieks “He’s not my son! He’s not my son!” Or “Did you kill my son?! Did you kill my son?!” Or “No! No! No!” Someone actually refers to her as having “moxie,” which is something you were allowed to say without airquotes in the 1920s, when the film is set, but which isn’t so accurate mostly she picturesquely suffers and droops and then lifts her chin and enlists the help offered her by those who’d like to use her case as a weapon against the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.
“Changeling” is director Clint Eastwood at his most manipulative, leagues beyond “Million Dollar Baby.” The film’s based on the actual Wineville Chicken Murders, in which Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped and killed at least three boys on his ranch in what’s now Mira Loma. One of the boys was 10-year-old Walter Collins, who was at the heart of a scandal surrounding the case after he was reported missing, the L.A.P.D. found another child who claimed to be Walter. When Christine Collins, Walter’s mother, denied that boy was her son, the police had her sent to the county psych ward. It’s an intriguing set-up, none the least because, as the film shows it, Christine at first dazedly lets herself be convinced that the boy could hers after all. But “Changeling” can’t allow its characters to appear to be made of flesh and blood Jeffrey Donovan, as the police captain who finds “Walter” eventually has Christine committed, might as well be vamping in a black cape. John Malkovich is ever a-tremble with indignation as the crusading Reverend Briegleb, who comes to Christine’s rescue. Christine is a saintly single mother with a spotless house and a modish but demure wardrobe who wakes up already in full make-up, who tirelessly dotes on her darling child and who supports them both as a skillful supervisor at the phone company switchboard. “Changeling” doesn’t want to tell a story it wants to be a portrait of a conquering heroine trampling on injustice, and not that of a realistic and wronged woman who was in danger of getting ground in the gears of a dishonest and powerful organization. Given that Christine’s great moments of triumph are those of enduring mistreatment, however, the intermittent faux feminist sentiments seem drearily misplaced. And like most true stories, “Changeling”‘ has no clean ending, struggles through what feels like an anticlimax in search of closure and settling on an ill-favored exchange of dialogue that I’d have called the worst in the festival until I saw “Surveillance” this morning (more on that in a bit).
With its star, its varnished vintage appearance and the ability to generate bewildering reviews like this one, “Changeling” is a picture all but created to win Academy Awards. Maybe it will, but hell if it deserves any. For the awards show clip, I’d suggest the scene where Christine visits the killer in prison, unnecessary to the plot and the film as a whole except as an opportunity to show off more of Jolie’s histrionic emoting. It might as well be useful for something.
“Changeling” will be released in the U.S. by November 7th.
[Photo: “Changeling,” Universal Pictures, 2008]
+ “Changeling” (Festival-Cannes.fr)