Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Movie Review: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

A classic of American literature is transformed into a brilliant movie, and Gregory Peck delivers in To Kill A Mockingbird the performance of a lifetime as Atticus Finch. The Horton Foote screenplay strips Harper Lee's book to its essence in an exemplary adaptation, allowing director Robert Mulligan to draw overwhelming power from the story of racial tensions in the deep south during the depression.

It's the early 1930s, and the young tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Philip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their father Atticus (Peck). The town is struggling against both the Great Depression and the forces of racism, with blacks confined to second class status. Scout and Jem entertain themselves by annoying the residents at the spooky Radley house down the street, where legend has it that the vicious Boo Radley is chained to the furniture all day and comes out at night to frighten young children.

Atticus, a widower, is the town lawyer and is bringing his children up to be enlightened citizens of the world that they will inhabit as adults, rather than the one they exist in as children. Teaching tolerance and charity, setting the highest example and yet allowing Scout and Jem to explore the world and make their own mistakes, Atticus is Maycomb's beacon of progressiveness.

When Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a gentle black man, is arrested for allegedly raping a white woman from the white trash Ewell clan, Atticus is assigned to defend the accused. The town is mostly aghast that a white man will make the case for the innocence of a black assailant against the word of his white accusers, but Atticus is unperturbed, believing in the power of a colour-blind justice system. The case goes to court, and has far-reaching implications for Tom, the Ewells, Scout and Jem, with even Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) finally and unexpectedly emerging from his house at a most pivotal moment in Scout's life.

The story of Mrs. Dubose is eliminated; neighbours are amalgamated; and the gossiping society ladies are disposed of altogether. As an example of how to focus an adaptation, To Kill A Mockingbird sets the standard. The two hours are dedicated to the interaction with the Radley house and the Tom Robinson story. The two of course come together most unexpectedly at the end, allowing Mulligan to tie the film with a perfect bow.

Gregory Peck's Academy Award winning performance oozes class, wisdom, and quiet pride. A role model father and lawyer, Peck's Finch represents what America will always strive to be, rather than what it necessarily is. That Peck himself was a principled and well-liked humanitarian means that a perfect fit was achieved between actor and role.

Neither Mary Badham nor Philip Alford achieved acting success after To Kill A Mockingbird, although both deserved to. Badham in particular finds the perfect balance of a child transitioning from ramshackle tomboy to an awakening girl gradually gaining awareness of life's long list of injustices.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare example of a film matching the brilliance of its source material. The mighty struggle of Atticus to free Tom Robinson soon jumped off the screen and into the streets, the American Civil Rights movement igniting with the march on Washington DC in 1963, and a mere 46 years after the release of the movie, a black man was elected the President of the United States. Many mockingbirds needlessly suffered in the struggle, but larger society eventually caught up with Atticus Finch, the most noble of heroes.  

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