Events that took place in California in 1928, and had repercussions for several years beyond, are the focus of Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort. Starring Angelina Jolie as single mother Christine Collins, the film is about one woman's struggle against a crooked system that rendered several divisions of law enforcement and mental health complicit in a wide range of atrocities committed under the guise of cleaning up the streets.
As has been the practice of Hollywood spectacles over the decades, the struggle of the one woman is set against the backdrop of a morally corrupt whole so that her persistence and grace can shine through like a beacon of truth through the murky goings-on in Prohibition Era California. The film may be based upon a true story but it is far from a straightforward docudrama. It is not a major leap of imagination to surmise that events in the film are engineered for dramatic effect, thereby diluting their true impact.
On its surface, the film is about one woman's hunt for her son, who goes missing while she is away at work. Upon her return she discovers an empty house and that her nine-year old is nowhere to be found. After she has endured the police department's red tape for several months, she is informed one day that her son has been found, in far away Illinois, and will be returned to her shortly.
The police department, already besieged by accusations of corruption and ineptitude, in particular by one Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich) -- an activist with a radio show, wants to treat the retrieval of her son as a PR exercise. Much to the mother's dismay however, she discovers that the boy who has returned is not her son, even though the authorities (and the child himself) insist that he is.
When facts come to light that challenge everything the police department has said and done, Christine continues her quest for her son and comes up against some powerful enemies (as well as some impactful allies) in the process.
This woman, Christine Collins, is painted as the Brockovich before Erin, the Parks before Rosa and in addition to being a genteel California woman who dared to raise a child on her own, she is shown to exhibit great courage and fortitude during the years after her greatest loss. Which is all very well except that the movie seems to be less about bringing a decades-old story and scandal to life (as a cautionary tale for the present) and more about being another episode in the ongoing series entitled the 'Beatification of Saint Angelina during her lifetime'.
The leading lady offers a quivering lip, altered accent and shaking hand in service of her performance as a woman trying to survive an ordeal; except that she never ceases to be Angelina Jolie for even a second of all her screen time. On the big screen she comes across as a too-thin, not-ageing-well screen goddess, who looks way better in all those photo-ops with faraway political leaders and her own brood of multinational kids than she does in the close-ups on offer for the duration of this film. One can't help wondering if the casting of another 'actress' in the role of the hopeful mother would have served this otherwise engaging film better than to drown out its understated shades and tone with Ms Jolie's over-tabloided 'starry' mega wattage.
The supporting cast performs admirably, especially the young actors playing the various children who are afforded any significant screen time. The problem starts and ends with the fact that this is the Angelina Jolie show. If people didn't go to watch when it was called Tomb Raider II what chance does a movie called Changeling have?