For his eighth film, American writer-director James Gray (The Lost City of Z) has delivered his most personal work yet. It’s funny, moving and stirring – and all the more remarkable for sticking so closely to reality. With only a few dramatic embellishments, all the events depicted actually happened to Gray.
It’s Queens, New York in August 1980 where young white Jewish pre-teen Paul Graff (played by Michael Banks Repeta and based loosely on Gray himself) befriends a Black boy called Johnny (Jaylin Webb). Johnny is the more disruptive of the pair at school, but each boy sticks up for each other as real friends do. Both have difficult home lives. Paul’s mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is kind and nurturing, but Paul’s dull but volatile father Irving (Jeremey Strong) violently beats him with a belt when he gets into trouble. Support comes from grandpa, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), a wise, funny man of immense charm and dignity.
Johnny, meanwhile, lives with his grandma, who can’t offer the guidance and discipline he needs. When she’s taken into a care home, he ends up surreptitiously sleeping in a clubhouse in Paul’s backyard.
At its heart, Armageddon Time is an intimate portrait of family life but it tackles bigger themes with clear-eyed intelligence. A large part of Johnny’s troubles stems from racism, on both an individual and institutional level. He’s held back a year at school, even though he’s clearly no idiot. When the two boys get into trouble with the police, it’s Johnny – heartbreakingly – who bares the brunt of the punishment.
Anthony Hopkins is on top form as everyone’s dream grandpa
In moments like this, Gray is refreshingly candid about white privilege, offering sharp details that cause us to consider how identity and inherited trauma shape our lives. It’s startling to discover that Aaron’s own mother fled to America after seen her parents murdered in front of her by the Nazis. The family name, Graff, has been shortened from the original ‘Grafinski’ to make it more palatable to Americans. When Paul eventually leaves his school to attend a fee-paying establishment, the class divide is laid bare, while racism rears its head in depressing fashion.
It’s powerful stuff, with Hopkins on top form as a man everyone would want as their grandpa. Strong, Hathaway, Repeta and Webb all offer nuanced, believable performances and one gets a real feel for what life in early ’80s New York must have been like. The coming-of-age tale has been done to death on-screen, but Gray has injected new life into it here – and new thoughtfulness.
Armageddon Time premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.