Never Judge A Book……

So 2009 has started with a boom and now the festive period already seems like a distant memory of some girl I kissed behind a tree at school camp in 1987…… Pleasant enough, but strangely unfulfilling.

I hope you all had a good one.

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I’d always had a problem with Robert Redford’s 1980 picture ORDINARY PEOPLE. Even before I set eyes on a frame of this film I was against it, if the movie came up in conversation I’d sneer and sometimes throw crockery. There was only one reason for this and I have to admit, with hindsight, it was a pretty stupid….. It’s the movie that beat RAGING BULL to the best picture Oscar. Now winning an Oscar isn’t the be all, and end all of course, there are better accolades to receive, but it annoyed the hell out of me nonetheless. Being so in awe of anything can be dangerous but I genuinely believed that Martin Scorsese had been hung from a tree, publicly flayed and massaged with salt as RAGING BULL, for me, was a perfect example of what Oscar winning cinema should be. This visceral examination of man’s capability to self destruct had such an effect on me that when I found out it had been pipped by a family drama, instant unresearched opinions were formed.

These opinions have been changed somewhat now I’ve actually seen the thing.

Actually, the initial exposure to the picture came via the script. Our library at college has a collection of screenplays and this is one of them. I realised my half baked pre-conception was in trouble within the first ten pages and by the time I got to the end, the desire to see this film was overwhelming. In fact I read the last half of the picture in my local pub, at the bar, on a heaving Saturday night. it was incredible. Sitting reading the third act affected me physically, there was a welling up situation happening and there was nothing I could do about it.

That’s the test of a good screenplay, if you can be COMPLETELY absorbed in the story whilst surrounded by drunk men in Edinburgh, you’ve got a hit…. Producers take note.

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The premise is simple, a family wracked with grief following the death of their son Buck in a boating accident struggle to function as a unit leaving each individual member lost in their own way. Timothy Hutton plays Conrad the surviving son who has returned to the family home after some time in a psychiatric hospital following the incident. Mary Tyler Moore plays Beth, the mother who uses her upper middle class social cycle as a barrier between herself and the truth, and Donald Sutherland who plays Calvin, a father desperately trying to keep his family intact whilst living with the same grief. It’s really powerful and moving stuff. The supporting performances are also very strong, notably Judd Hirsch (most famous for his role as in the 70’s comedy TAXI) playing Dr. Berger, Conrad’s Psychiatrist, who has maybe the most important part in this film.

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I really enjoyed the scenes with Berger and Conrad, they were beautifully shot and although we go back to that office on maybe 3 or 4 occasions, Redford does well to create a different aesthetic feel each time. These scenes also serve as a perfect respite from the claustrophobic atmosphere within the family house. Yes, there’s tension in that office but you can see that Conrad is making progress when in the company of Berger.

Conrad’s relationship with his mother is the core conflict of the movie. Beth is submerged in the comforting folds of the well heeled social scene while her son tears himself apart with guilt fuelled by teenage alienation and the pressure of “performing” to the levels are are expected of him.

Donald Sutherland is wonderfully understated in his role as the diplomatic father, trying to find a common ground between his wife and her son. In fact all the performances in this film are understated, it’s what makes the scenario so utterly believable.

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The structure of the film is interesting in that climactic confrontations are not held until the end of the picture, for a film of such seemingly sombre pace there’s many peaks and troughs.

If I was to highlight one negative of this movie, and there are a few but I don’t want to go on too much about them, I’d say that the dream sequences seemed a bit clunky although absolutely essential.

So seek out this film, anyone who’s had any kind of trouble with the complexities of family existence will completely buy into this picture.

Oh,….. And it won the Oscar in 1980. That’s gotta be worth something right?

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