Cannes 2008 diary: 'The Exchange'

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Dave Calhoun sees Clint Eastwood's latest, 'The Exchange', as prime Oscar fodder

Clint Eastwood was back at Cannes this week for the first time since ‘Mystic River’ with ‘The Exchange’ (a last-minute name change from 'Changeling'), which is the true story of Christine Collins, a resilient, respectable single mother in Los Angeles in 1928 whose life enters freefall when her eight-year-old son Walter disappears while she’s out doing her job as the well-liked manager of a local telephone exchange.

Matters then take a turn for the worst – and not for the last time in a film of ever-increasing tragedy – when the police return the wrong child to Christine and refuse to believe her protests in case they further tarnish the already sullied reputation of a Los Angeles Police Department whose corrupt and violent behaviour we hear being pilloried by a weekly radio broadcast from a prominent community activist (John Malkovich) who later helps Collins in her fight against injustice.

There’s a pleasing, gentle period feel to the film’s opening scenes as Christine rides a tram through 1920s LA, dressed, as for most of the film, in attractive period garb. But a mournful and increasingly repetitive jazz score hints heavily at sadnesses to come and Eastwood’s decision to linger on young Walter at the window of their home as his mother goes reluctantly to work allows for a poignant image that's suggestive of a nightmare to follow.

The quietness of these early moments are the film's strongest parts; the rest is solid and polite but never especially inspiring. Angelina Jolie plays Christine with grace and precision. Her contribution is a positive one, even though she's sometimes in cahoots with a script that threatens to afford this victim of circumstance, corruption and chauvinism a near-angelic status that distracts from the horror of children being kidnapped and murdered.

The facts of Collins' resistance of institutional indifference and exploitation are certainly extraordinary and wisely rooted by Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski in the very ordinary experience of a woman in a man’s world trying to balance work and family before and after experiencing a tragedy. The film and Collins' feminist credentials are complete in the face of a vicious, corrupt police chief, played in slight pantomime fashion by Jeffrey Donovan, and a child-killer, played with an obligatory crazy grin by Jason Butler Harner, both of whose behaviour are set in strict contrast to the warm humanity of motherhood.

The world of this film is irritatingly neat, with villains in one camp and martyrs and heroes and good folk in the other. It's well-crafted and sensitive but never particularly imaginative or surprising and not nearly as claustrophobic or as chilling as Tom Stern's shadowy photography would suggest.

It seems inevitable that 'The Exchange' will be big news by the time the awards season swings round again in early 2009. It’s a solid film from Clint, not a great one, but one can imagine the Academy voters hovering their pens over the names of Eastwood and Jolie come next January.

Read Cannes review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ here

Read Cannes review of Woody Allen's 'Vicky Christina Barcelona' here

Read our review of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' here

Read our review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read Cannes review of Fernando Meirelles Cannes 2008 opener,' 'Blindness', here

Author: Dave Calhoun



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