Review: Changeling (2008)

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In 1975, following the disastrous reputation that met Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction, the director angrily blamed Universal for the failure and vowed never again to work with them, a promise he kept for 33 years. 2008 saw him return to the studio, stepping in to take over from Ron Howard in directing Changeling.

Based on a true story, Changeling tells the tale of single mother Christine Collins whose young son Walter disappears one day while she is covering a co-worker’s shift. Told that her son has been found, Christine is horrified to discover that the boy she is presented with is not hers, a claim derided and ridiculed by the corrupt establishment, who label her a madwoman.

From its opening use of the 1920s Universal logo, Changeling wastes no time in casting us back to the era of its protagonist. Immediately noticeable from the get-go is Eastwood’s score; following on from that of his son with Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood’s music is simplistic but hugely effective, providing an emotional backdrop to the scenes without ever becoming intrusive. Production designer James Murakami evokes the period setting well, bringing us further into the world of 1920s Los Angeles with his impressive recreation. The film’s earliest scenes, set primarily in Collins’ home as she awakens her son to another day, are touched by a bright warmth, underscoring the affection of this relationship and the motherly love which is so crucial to this story.

The casting of Jolie is interesting considering the neighbouring entries in her filmography: Wanted and Salt—many commenting that the extent of her celebrity status proves a distraction to the reality of Collins’ story. This is far from the Jolie of Tomb Raider and its ilk, however, this performance is instead hugely understated and reserved, almost aloof. Collins is an extremely strong character. Her statement to Walter to “never start a fight, always finish it” goes to show the extent to which she has taken on the fatherly role as well as her own maternal one, and this strength is fully realized in Jolie’s performance.

Its cast is among Changeling’s strongest elements, the strength of Jolie finding balance in the vociferous ferocity of John Malkovich’s Reverend Gustav Briegleb, who campaigns for Collins’ rights and vehemently speaks out against the injustices of the corrupt police force. As Captain Jones, the man who resists Collins’ pleas in order to save face for his department, Jeffrey Donovan who, incidentally, has been cast in J. Edgar as Robert Kennedy—is a powerful presence. Across the board, Changeling’s performers pull us into the world of their characters, involving us with this story and ensuring we remain with it at every turn.

There are times in Changeling when its story seems to turn it away from the issues one feels it should be addressing, though given its basis in reality this can hardly be considered a flaw of the film. Eastwood constructs his story slowly, gradually building up blocks of information and enriching his story bit by bit. There are perhaps too many turns in the narrative; this is a big scale treatment of a story that ought, we feel, to be smaller, more intimate. We delve regularly from Collins to Jones to an entirely different case, meandering through flashbacks that seem, in their late introduction, to disrupt the flow of the narrative, though this is more a problem of the inherently uncinematic nature of the story than any particular aspect of its execution.

A theme previously explored in Eastwood’s oeuvre through the likes of Breezy, The Bridges of Madison County, and Million Dollar Baby, the societal treatment of women is here explored in great detail. Collins’ assertions that the returned boy is not her son are labelled by the police force as the efforts of an irresponsible woman trying to offload her responsibility onto society. She is institutionalized for her refusal to adhere to the plans of the establishment; though set eight years after the granting of voting rights to women, Changeling depicts a world where they are still marginalized as emotionally unstable and fundamentally second-class citizens.

Though not as much so as the majority of Eastwood’s films of the decade, Changeling is another tough dissection of difficult themes. Its story is somewhat too sprawling to be fully effective, but the strength of its performances and direction keep it firmly on course. An uneasy watch at times courtesy of increasingly dark scenes toward its finale, Changeling is a solid entry in the Eastwood canon.

[notification type=”star”]74/100 – Changeling’s story is somewhat too sprawling to be fully effective, but the strength of its performances and direction keep it firmly on course.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.