You’ve Come A Long Way Angelina

Main Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

Director: Clint Eastwood

One of the first things you learn as a new parent is that your children really are a part of you. You know their smell and their cry and as they get older their every movement and very essence become ingrained in your heart and your mind. You know them – better than you know yourself, better than they know themselves. They are your children. Imagine, just for a moment, if someone told you that you were wrong.

How could that possibly be? The true story of Christine Collins and what she endured as a parent (and a human being) at the hands of the truly sordid and soulless will make the heart of every parent leap with fear and writhe with empathetic agony. Christine (played here by Angelina Jolie) was a single parent in 1928, working hard at the telephone company to support herself and her nine-year-old son, Walter. She was a successful, independent woman at a time when such a thing was considered unusual. But she and Walter thrived in their middle class home in Los Angeles.

But like all single parents, sometimes Christine had to make sacrifices in order to juggle work and family. After accepting an unexpected shift at work she had to leave Walter on his own for most of a Saturday. Neither one of them liked it, but that’s how life goes sometimes. Except life didn’t go on as usual after that shift. When Christine arrived home, Walter was gone.

As days turned to weeks and then months, Christine became stalwart in her determination to see that the police did their job and looked for her son. At that time in history, the LAPD was a corrupt snake pit, filled with violence, incompetence, greed and arrogance. When a boy fitting Walter’s description was found far away, they returned him to Christine, proclaiming for all to hear their marvelous success and never once paying heed to her assertion that this was not her child.

That’s correct – in 1928 a mother was not presumed to know her own child. It didn’t matter what she said, the “authorities” had some way to explain it away – most of the explanations revolving around Christine being hysterical or unreliable or in shock. As a woman, her word meant very little.

Changeling tells the story of Christine Collins and what she went through from the moment her son disappeared, through an agonizing series of events perpetrated against her by those entrusted with her – and everyone’s – safety and well-being. The truth is that this could have happened to anyone, and probably did, over and over. But there is a very substantial amount of historical documentation of this particular case due to its unique set of circumstances and to Christine herself that let us into her life. Changeling isn’t “based” on a true story, it is a true story.

By far the two most outstanding aspects of the film are the performance of Angelina Jolie as Christine and the superb set and costume design that bring 1928 Los Angeles to vivid life. Los Angeles is the type of artificial place that is hard to imagine even having a history. Those in charge of showing us otherwise do so brilliantly, from the vehicles to the houses, clothing, furnishings and even the landscaping of Christine’s middle class neighborhood. The interior sets of the phone company with the supervisors riding the aisles on roller skates are truly beautiful in their authenticity.

Angelina Jolie is not an actress that I usually find particularly relatable. She seems cold and distant, and that doesn’t completely change here. But her stoicism makes her a perfect Christine. She isn’t hysterical – she’s appropriately distraught, but she’s a strong woman who will not give up simply because a man demands that she do so. She dissolves into tears rarely, and when she does so, it’s under the most egregious of stressors. Jolie has the fierce posture of a woman unwilling to bend to the autocratic demands of an unreasonable system. She does not wilt under the pressure; she does not give up on her child. This is not a warm and fuzzy performance because Christine is not a warm and fuzzy character. She does have her moments of vulnerability – she’s not a superhero, just a frightened and determined parent. There is one particular scene in which we see the slowly dawning realization that anything and everything she says will be twisted and used against her with extreme malice that is heartbreaking. It’s beautifully played.

My only complaint (and it’s more of an observation) is that Jolie is rail thin here – to the point where she looks rather unhealthy. I honestly believe that the costume designers tried to work around her slight frame and make her look more substantial and they did a reasonably good job with her wardrobe. She even wears a lot of gloves, hiding her skeletal hands from the unforgiving eye of the camera. Her appearance does minimally detract from the heft of her performance.

The film as a whole is a touch slow. Some judicious editing could have left about twenty minutes on the cutting room floor without detriment to the content. The audience needs to be patient with the characters and the story – a bit more patient than is really necessary. Though it is very fun to wallow and get lost in the glorious costuming and set design, after the two hour mark the film just needs to get on with it all.

Changeling is a very good film – not a great one. Jolie and the set crew all do a marvelous job of recreating a character and a distinct sense of time and place. The supporting cast – most notably John Malkovich – only add, never detract, from the primary thrust of the narrative. The true horror of what happened to Christine Collins is spelled out for all to see. It’s an upsetting story and one that will linger in the souls of every parent who has ever identified the cry of their own child on a crowded playground or breathed in deep to absorb the already familiar smell of a newborn. To have that instinct not only questioned but thrust aside as hysterical and unstable is unthinkable. While the film could use a bit of jumpstarting here and there, overall I highly recommend it to fans of Jolie, anyone who knows the story and any parent.

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