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Changeling: Searching for Oscar

Something’s missing from this new film starring an award-tipped Angelina Jolie – and it’s not just a boy called Walter.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Set against the backdrop of a Prohibition-era LA suburb, where women, particularly single mothers, are treated with disdain and where a corrupt and incompetent police force is more concerned with covering its own back than maintaining law and order, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling tells the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) whose nine-year-old son mysteriously went missing in 1928.

But there is more than a young boy missing from this movie: it also lacks coherence, suspense and a point. Rather than examining in any meaningful sense any of the above-mentioned themes, this prop-filled and stylish period piece ends up being little more than a study of Angelina Jolie.

The incessant close-ups of the heroine’s face – with those big, red lips that look like they they’ve been stung by a swarm of botox-injected bees – do not add up to a vivid character portrayal. As she goes from being a caring mother and curt supervisor of telephone operators to a despairing woman, caught up in a web of lies and scorned by the powers-that-be, Jolie’s character stays surprisingly samey. She seems oddly flat and aloof.

The story itself is compelling and chilling. Christine, a single mother, returns home from work one day to find that her only child, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), has mysteriously gone missing. She calls the police only to be told that she is overreacting and that she has to wait 24 hours before she can give an official statement. Over the next few months, Christine’s own searches prove fruitless. Then, to her great relief, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) bring her some good news: Walter has been found in Illinois.

Suffering from bad publicity and facing persistent criticism from local activist Reverend Briegleb (John Malkovich), the LAPD stages a reunion between Christine and a boy they claim is Walter Collins. Christine, greeting the boy at a train station in front of LA’s press corps, insists that he is not her son. Confused and emotional, Christine is initially persuaded to accept the brutish police chief’s (Colm Feore) suggestion that Walter has simply changed and that she is in shock. He convinces her to ‘try the boy out’. But when she takes ‘Walter’ home and notices that he is several inches shorter than her own son and has, unlike the real Walter, been circumcised, she challenges the police’s concoction, only to be dismissed as hysterical, traumatised and overemotional.

The more Christine insists that the boy from Illinois ‘is not my son’ – a line she repeats every other minute throughout the film (or so it seems) – the more brutish, coercive and manipulative officialdom’s response to her plight becomes. A doctor is even hired to support the police case, claiming that the boy’s spine has shrivelled and that his abductor must have had him snipped. The counter-evidence that Christine amasses – from people who knew the real Walter – proves futile as the police use any means necessary to stop this ‘good news story’ from turning into yet another public embarrassment.

Reverend Briegleb eventually comes to Christine’s defence, but she gets locked up in a mental asylum under ‘Code 12’, a rule under which the LAPD could commit citizens to asylums without a warrant. After manipulative treatment, force-feeding and a narrow escape from electric shock treatment, Briegleb and a top lawyer manage to get Christine – and, soon after, all Code 12 patients – out of the asylum.

If it seems like this review has just revealed the whole story, don’t worry; the film goes on – and on. At the start of Changeling, Christine advises Walter never to start a fight, but always to finish it. She seems to have lived by this lesson herself, spending her life looking for her son. Christine’s search never ended, and for a long time it seemed the film never would either.

As the mystery of Walter’s disappearance begins to unravel, Changeling itself goes through some strenuous transformations. At times, the film shows hope of being an engaging true crime story and a study of injustice, but Eastwood packs in too much, introducing new plots, characters and environments in an unfocused manner. His slow and patient storytelling style in this case just makes for an unthrilling movie; Christine’s wearisome and dispiriting confrontations with the authorities end up being just frustrating to watch.

Jolie herself, who is just as famous for having six children with Brad Pitt as she is for her acting, is the mother of all celebrity mums. Perhaps Eastwood expected her maternal instincts to radiate through the big screen and infuse the Christine character with depth and insight. The problem is that it is impossible to forget that it is ANGELINA JOLIE we’re watching. And Angelina Jolie seems to long for an Oscar more than a Walter.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

The Changeling is currently on general release.

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