The Artist and J Edgar review

by Fiona Rae / 04 February, 2012
Oscar nominee The Artis is sensational, while J Edgar is the most nuanced film Clint Eastwood has made in years.

"I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” These are the first words in French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s sensational black-and-white silent movie The Artist, and, sure enough, they’re written on a title card. “We have to talk, George,” a reproachful wife tells her husband later in the film. “Why do you refuse to talk?”

If George were inclined to explain himself, he might reply, “Because I’m a silent-movie star facing the dawn of the talkie era, and this entire marriage exists in order to make a symbolic point”, but Hazanavicius trusts us to reach this understanding on our own. He also trusts us not to mind that he’s being monstrously unsubtle. Just as George’s career is taking what may be its final downturn, we see a scene from what may turn out to be his last film. He plays an explorer who’s encountered that great movie menace, quicksand, and as we watch he sinks slowly out of shot. When you’re celebrating the glories of an art form based on an exaggerated gestural language, subtlety is exactly the thing you don’t need.

A silent film about a silent-film star is vulnerable to accusations of industry navel-gazing, and there have been a few. They’re unfair. The Artist is a beautiful artefact from the ground up, with winning performances from Jean Dujardin, as George, and Bérénice Bejo, as the star destined to take his place in the public’s affections; I would recommend it for nostalgia’s sake alone. But Hazanavicius has more on his mind. This is a film about technological unemployment, which lets it speak to our moment just as effectively as it comments on the era in which it’s set. It’s a slight little thing, and the wave of hype generated by its charm (and, now, by its Oscar nomination for Best Picture) has probably done it no favours. But if you see it in a more than half-full theatre, I’d give even odds that a round of applause will break out as the final credits roll.

THE ARTIST, directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Click here for theatres and times.

Clint Eastwood's directorial style often gets described as clean, unfussy, ego-free: all terms suspiciously consonant with his man-of-few-words acting persona. The adjective I've found most useful when discussing Eastwood's directing career is "boring", backed up by "tone-deaf" and "mediocre".

There are a few instances of the characteristic Eastwood misjudgments in J Edgar, his biopic of J Edgar Hoover, the founding director of the FBI. At a little under two-and-a-half hours, the film is a good 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, and a key scene in which tensions between Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his not-quite-lover Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer) boil over into violence is a classic of unintentional camp. (His taciturn image notwithstanding, Eastwood is given to overstatement.)

But for all that, this is the most interesting, nuance-alert film Eastwood has made in years, maybe his best since Unforgiven. The screenplay is by Dustin Lance Black, whose Oscar-winning writing for Milk struck me as well-intentioned rather than impressive; here he displays a sophisticated ability to make complex historical information his servant, not his master. Between them, he and Eastwood provide DiCaprio with everything he needs to deliver a first-rate piece of acting.

We watch as Hoover creates himself, a dazzling performance piece partly for the benefit of an overbearing mother (Judi Dench, withering and fabulous), partly for the American public, and partly for himself. The man inside the role we glimpse only in brief moments, but that's enough. Compare the under-baked portrait of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady to see how great acting can be undermined by weak writing and direction. DiCaprio is not in Meryl Streep's league, but his Hoover has what her Thatcher lacks: a writer/director team who know what they want to say and how to say it.

J EDGAR, directed by Clint Eastwood. Click here for theatres and times.

Click here for more reviews and stories by David Larsen.
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