Monday 14 August 2017

Movie Review: Erin Brockovich (2000)

Based on a true story, Erin Brockovich is a stirring drama about two struggles: one woman fights to redefine herself, and one suffering community takes on a big corporate polluter.

In the Los Angeles area, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is twice divorced and trying to raise three kids on her own. Desperate to find employment, she finally lands a filing clerk position at the ramshackle office of lawyer Edward Masry (Albert Finney) after he fails to secure compensation for her in a car accident case. At Masry's office Erin stumbles onto files related to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the small community of Hinkley. PG&E is attempting to quietly purchase the houses of many residents who appear to be suffering from various serious health ailments.

Erin takes it upon herself to personally investigate the case, and meets Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) and her family to better understand their plight. She spends days digging up records at the local water authority office, and pieces together a soil and water contamination cover-up involving the dangerous chemical hexavalent chromium. Erin's personal, down-to-earth approach allows her to connect with more than 600 potential victims as the ramifications of the case grow into hundreds of millions of dollars, but all the hours at work are taking a toll on Erin's children and her latest boyfriend, next-door biker George (Aaron Eckhart).

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, Erin Brockovich is a classic David versus Goliath story multiplied by two. Erin bulldozing her way into a respectable career against all odds plays out next to her efforts to win compensation for a tiny community from a behemoth corporation. Soderbergh makes both stories work in an engaging narrative that balances the deeply personal aspects of Erin's story with a high-stakes investigative drama about environmental maleficence.

The character of Erin is a huge part of the film's charm. Clobbered by life ever since she won a local beauty pageant, Erin has reached the stage of fighting back, and loudly. Unloading with profanity-laced tirades whenever she senses her rights being wronged, Erin is at once irrepressible, approachable and thorny. Insisting at all times on big hair, small skirts, uncomfortably high heels and either tight or transparent cleavage-revealing tops, the one thing she now refuses to do is fade away. Her scrappy attitude, persistence and street smarts make for a potent combination.

Julia Roberts brings Erin to life in an Academy Award winning performance. Roberts is not about one highlight scene or revealing profound depths of character. Rather, over the two hours of running time her portrayal focuses on capturing a real and uncompromising woman with all her faults, fears, strengths, and spirit. She dominates the film and never dips into sentimentality or victimhood.

Albert Finney provides the perfect foil as the veteran lawyer Edward Masry. Finney allows Masry to be Erin's opposing force, absorbing plenty of her flack and firing back with no shortage of his own understated venom. The two gradually work their way to becoming a formidable duo, her energy and his experience gelling into a powerful team.

The investigation into the soil and water contamination mystery remains admirably grounded in facts and legal process. Erin's truth-seeking efforts consist of unglamorous digging through files in government offices coupled with finding then talking to the victims to learn their affecting stories of disease and suffering. Gradually insiders and informers also step forward to provide key puzzle pieces. Soderbergh constructs the process of connecting the dots with a welcome pragmatism and avoids needless theatrics.

In keeping with the film's focus on reality, most of the tension comes from Erin trying to hold her personal life together as the case consumes every waking hour. Her relationship with her children suffers, and boyfriend George is reduced to an unhappy babysitter. Balancing kids, career and partner becomes a daring juggling act.

Erin Brockovich is a compelling drama about the individual and the collective, engaged in a common fight for recognition and respect.

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