Tuesday 22 September 2020

Movie Review: Changeling (2008)

A missing child crime drama, Changeling recreates an enthralling true mystery, and exposes chapters of deep-seated corruption and horrid treatment of women deemed inconvenient.

Los Angeles, 1928. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mom working as a telephone exchange supervisor and raising her nine year old son Walter. Christine returns home one day to find Walter missing. Despite pressure from anti-corruption campaigner Reverend Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), it's five months before Captain Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) of the Los Angeles Police Department's Juvenile Division reunites Christine with a child found abandoned in rural Illinois. 

She immediately realizes the boy is not Walter, but is pressured into caring for him under the pretense that five months is a long time and the boy would have changed. Christine keeps the pressure on Jones to find her real son, and eventually goes to the press. The police retaliate by labeling her unstable and dumping her into a psychiatric ward. But when Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly) stumbles upon a heinous multiple child murder scene on the outskirts of the city, Reverend Briegleb and famed lawyer Sammy "S.S." Hahn (Geoff Pierson) team up to support Christine's quest for the truth.

Meticulously researched and written by J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling draws upon historical archives to bring to life an astonishing but true story. Director Clint Eastwood, assisted by a star turn from Angelina Jolie, delivers a devastating film, starting with a tight focus on a single mom and her child, gradually expanding to cover the atrocious mistreatment of women, a police department riddled with mismanagement and incompetence, and finally one of the worst mass-murder cases in California's history.

Righteous rage and individual courage are the two interwoven themes permeating through Changeling. At every turn, Eastwood highlights a system designed by men to sweep women's concerns aside. Detective Jones and Doctor Jonathan Steele (Denis O'Hare) at the psychiatric facility manipulate Christine's words and actions to portray her as unfit, uncaring and erratic. With no oversight she is subjected to the horrors of an asylum where women who challenge authority are sent to rot.

But having lost her child Christine has nothing left to lose and therefore will not be silenced. She eventually finds allies in Reverend Briegleb and lawyer Hahn, while the dogged work of detective Ybarra is a spark of hope for the future of policing. Changeling then enters the world of child victimization at an abominable scale through the crimes of Gordon Stewart Northcott (James Butler Harner), and Christine finds herself at the centre of two extraordinary proceedings.

Eastwood recreates a between-the-wars Depression-era Los Angeles with loving care, the set designs, costumes and cars capturing a fragile society on the edge between emerging modernity and economic ruin. The city has undoubted energy and potential, but is also slipping into the grip of greedy men hiding behind respectable suits and uniforms, eager to consume a growing share of an expanding pie.

Into a grim male-dominated world, Changeling shines a thin ray of positive light towards the future, society's genuine advancement only achieved when women are treated as equals, or better.

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