06 February 2007

Movie tip: An Unfinished Life

Movie: An Unfinished Life
Year: 2005
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Robert Redford
Genre: Drama

I'm not ususally fond of 'issue' movies (in this case, domestic violence) but in this one the issue is kept in the background. As with eXistenZ, the subject of my previous movie review, this film's strongest point is not plot. Dialogue isn't scintillating either. But camerawork, small-town realism, atmosphere and acting are all top notch.

The plot is a touch mundane, and not up to the standards of Hallström's Gilbert Grape (the movie which brought Leonardo DiCaprio to mainstream attention, with a performance which in my view he has never bettered) or Cider House Rules. On the other hand, it isn't marred by the sentimentalism which sometimes infects his films. The story is very much a slow burner, and the underlying theme is handled so subtly that it may not really gel with the viewer until some time after the end of the film.

Where Hallström excels, like Soderbergh, is in psychological realism — giving us human beings in close-up, their trivia included, in a way that is very evocative of real people, certainly by the standards of Hollywood movies. The visuals are also excellent, with stunning shots of what is supposedly the Wyoming countryside (not sure if it was actually filmed there) that are similar to those seen in Brokeback Mountain. In fact, the atmosphere is in some ways comparable to that of the latter, although it's less gritty.

Freeman, Lopez, Redford. They all tend to be one-character actors, don't they. Resigned philosopher, sassy fighter from the wrong tracks, charmer with a hint of grump. Still, they're all excellent at what they do, and the combination of the three of them (don't recall seeing any of them together before this) works well here. Redford, at least, does a slight variant of his usual persona, playing grumpy with a hint of charm.

J-Lo is underrated as an actress, in my opinion. She's never even been nominated for an Oscar, but she lights up the screen as much as Julia Roberts, and she's more interesting than Roberts. (She was positively incandescent in Out of Sight.) Becca Gardner, as J-Lo's eleven-year-old daughter, is also terrific, and I predict great things for her, assuming she chooses to remain in the profession. A bit like Christina Ricci: as precocious, but more complex and depthful.

The real scene stealer of this movie, however, is a bear. You have to be there, but it really seems like he must have had coaching at a Lee Strasberg studio.

One minor niggle: Damian Lewis is miscast as an unstable wifebeater.

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