Lets take Swank first. Million Dollar Baby, which is directed by Clint Eastwood, is a low-key movie with a serious film-ending punch. To discuss the ending would be an act of critical stupidity. Therefore, lets discuss the roll-up to what is an emotional conclusion. If Swanks performance works, then youre immediately caught up in what progresses on screen and this takes you into the engaging final third. If her performance doesnt click, then you really wont care and the ending doesnt flow. I think the highlight of the movie is the acting, and Swank is superb. Also nominated for acting is Eastwood, as a soft-spoken, albeit brittle, boxing trainer, with serious parenting issues in his past. Hes up for best actor. Co-star Morgan Freeman is nominated in the best supporting actor category. Hes a boxing old-timer and friend of Eastwoods character. Basically, the movie uses the sport of boxing as a metaphor for life. Theres a simplicity within that astonishes. This is almost an old-fashioned film, and thats a compliment. It looks and feels like a 1940s Warner Brothers melodrama. The excellent cinematography is dark and moody. The pacing is deliberate.
The movie revolves around the three characters played by Swank, Eastwood, and Freeman. They will each have to make decisions affecting each others lives. Swank, as you recall, underwent an extraordinary physical transformation in Boys Dont Cry, for which she won the best actress Oscar, ironically, beating out Bening who was nominated for American Beauty. In this new movie, Swank does it again. Shes Maggie Fitzgerald, a gritty, salt-of-the-earth boxer; a determined young woman who wants to get into the ring and box for big prizes. Womens boxing is a controversial spectacle and the film opens up a whole new avenue of discussion about the sport. Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, the curmudgeonly owner of a downscale boxing gym. Not many people train there, but the seedy place is filled with the ghosts of Frankies past. This is one haunted fellow. He has alienated his grown daughter; letters he writes to her are never answered. He is also wracked by guilt over an old boxing fiasco, and hes been dumped as the manager of an up-and-coming boxer. In addition to managing fighters, hes also a former cut man, the guy who works on the round-to-round injuries sustained by boxers. But deep inside, theres intense turmoil. Frankie is the most Eugene ONeillesque character Ive seen in the movies in years. The screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on a short story collection by F. X. Toole, repeatedly drags Dunn through somber moments, including myriad visits to his Catholic church and conversations with the local priest, talks that will play an important role in the films conclusion.
When Maggie approaches Frankie and pleads with him to train her, he recoils. He wont train girlies, no matter how scrappy and determined they may be. Its here that the movie might slip into error for some. Clearly there are intense psychological issues at play between the bad parent Dunn and dirt-poor admiring Maggie. Dont get bogged down in them. Its not obvious or absurd. The combustible relationship and past errors and reminders are what the movie is about.
Million Dollar Baby is narrated by Freemans character, Eddie, a former boxer who is Frankies assistant. Its a cantankerous friendship, but it works. Eddies commentary is wryly touching, a sweetly funny tribute to both Maggie and Frankie. As Dunn trains the girl, and she gets good in the ring, a bond is forged. And later, decisions have to be made, decisions made all the more difficult because of the bond between a gruff old man and an eager young woman.
Million Dollar Baby is beautifully directed by Eastwood. Theres an assuredness that comes with the wisdom of age. As noted, the acting is top-notch. Can three people hold your interest for two hours? You bet they can.
Now on to Imelda Staunton. Vera Drake is a rarity in movies. Its an issue film. And that issue is the explosive one of abortion. Staunton may be unknown to many of you, but shes a superb British stage actress, and she plays the title character in director Mike Leighs stunning movie. Staunton plays Mrs. Drake with a cheery, grandmotherly air. Shes a happily married, middle-aged woman whose secret life will shock her family and embroil 1950s London. This kindly lady performs illegal abortions, well before abortions were legalized in England.
Looking like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel, Vera goes about her normal life with the aplomb of a gentle soul. Director Leigh is brilliant at capturing the essence of peoples day-to-day lives. He has a real ear for dialogue (he gets credit for the screenplay, but as always improvisation is also utilized), and he knows exactly how to make sets look lived-in. Post-war London is seedy and there are still shortages. Vera is a smiling, energetic person. She works as a cleaning lady for the rich and is a good Samaritan for her family and neighbors. She always has time to visit her ailing mother and delights in inviting a shy young male neighbor to dinner with the Drakes. Mr. Drake is a garage mechanic and he and Vera have two adult children, a son whos a tailor and a daughter who works in a factory. Leigh and company make it all wonderfully believable.
But then the roof caves in. One of Veras deeds is, as she puts it, to help young girls in trouble. She performs abortions with makeshift equipment consisting of a syringe and bulb that she carries around in a wooden box. She accepts no payment for her operations. She is only doing it to make lives better. After one of her patients nearly dies, Vera is confronted by the police. The lead detective is sympathetic, but Vera is now part of the legal system, much to the shock of her family and mortification of their middle-class relatives.
The movie then proceeds into its second half as a sort of legal thriller. Theres a touch of Alfred Hitchcocks The Wrong Man operating within. This sweet-natured woman doesnt perform the abortions out of avarice or political convictions. She genuinely cares about the girls and is shattered by the news that one of them has nearly died. Leigh and his terrific ensemble cast are careful to keep everything evenhanded. The police inspector is a modicum of courtesy. The Court is concerned, but Britain has rules by which to live. Who is the monster here? Mrs. Drake? Is she a criminal? A helpful soul? A fool? Is the law right or wrong? Whats amazing about the movie is that it turns the audience into the jury.
Vera Drake has won a number of honors, including the Best Film and Best Actress awards at the recent Venice Film Festival. Its proof positive that movies can and should explore difficult issues. Why should anyone fear real drama? Compelling doesnt begin to describe the film. As for Stauntons performance, you really should anticipate it and see it for yourself. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor
The Academy Award nominations were announced the other day. In the best actress category, the nominees were Annette Bening for Being Julia, Catalina Sandino Moreno for Maria Full Of Grace, Imelda Staunton for Vera Drake, Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby, and Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
If you recall comments made in my previous reviews, I thought Bening was magnificent as the bravura Julia, Londons delightful theater diva. I also wrote that Maria Full Of Grace was the first movie in years and years and years that I saw without once looking at my watch and that Moreno was terrific. And I jokingly noted that the always-interesting Winslet would do wonders for hair coloring.