September 10, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Children Act,” “Suburbicon” & “Chappaquiddick”


THE CHILDREN ACT (no distrib):  It’s not intended as disparagement to Ian McEwan’s novel and screenplay adaptation, or to Richard Eyre’s film, that THE CHILDREN ACT feels much of the time like it could be the pilot for a high-toned television series featuring Emma Thompson as a compassionate jurist specializing in family law who has her own troubled personal life.  For one thing, these days “TV” is no longer an insult, and for another, I for one would be all in favor of Emma Thompson starring in such a series.  Children Act, though, feels less of a piece than the other McEwan adaptation in this year’s festival, Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, and more like a tale that could be told in multiple episodes.  The main plotline of McEwan’s novel and script has High Court judge Fiona May (Thompson) having to rule on the case of a 17-year old Jehovah’s Witness (powerfully played by Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead) who has refused a blood transfusion on religious grounds.  The case becomes much more emotionally and even spiritually complicated than Fiona could imagine, connecting with her feelings about her wobbly marriage (to a husband played by Stanley Tucci) and about the nature of her job.  This is the strongest, meatiest role Thompson has had in a decade, and it’s wonderful to watch her work through its layers, from legal efficiency to existential unrest.  So much so, in fact, that one wishes there could be more.

SUBURBICON (Paramount – Oct. 27):  A remarkably complete fiasco, despite the seemingly can’t-miss talent involved.  The project started as a farcical crime story written by the Coen Brothers (it was composed pre-Fargo, and one can see how bits and pieces of its concepts survived into that masterpiece), which was then taken over by the Coens’ frequent star George Clooney and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov.  They added on a completely new plotline about the racism shown by an American suburb in the 1950s to the first African-American residents, based on the true story of events in Levittown during that era.  It’s not just that the two pieces don’t fit together–although they definitely don’t–but that neither one works on its own.  In the violent farce, Matt Damon is a recent widower (both his wife and his sister-in-law are played by Julianne Moore as twins) who turns out not to be very innocent at all, in a tale that has whiffs of Double Indemnity along with the Coens.  As a director, Clooney has fumbled with comic violence before, in Confessions Of A Dangerous Man, and here everyone’s timing seems a bit off, with relationships that aren’t well enough established.  (Oscar Isaac, though, has one terrific scene with Moore.)  The racism storyline is even more of a mess, underdeveloped and basically used as a “Meanwhile, on the other side of the street” interruption to the main plot.  The two halves are united only in the sense that both tales are about the monstrousness of white suburbanites.  Current events, of course, have proven this story to be far more topical than we might wish, but the message still needed to be delivered in an artistically satisfying way.  Suburbicon is neither funny enough nor ghastly enough to work.  (Having said all this, absolutely no one is better at the art of the post-screening Q&A than George Clooney, the definition of class and affability to his fans.)

CHAPPAQUIDDICK (Entertainment Studios):  A low-key but scathing account of a political scandal that’s rarely talked about these days.  In July 1969, exactly as Apollo 11 was sending the first men to the moon, Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Martha’s Vineyard, and although Kennedy wasn’t even bruised, his 24-year old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne died.  As Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s lucid script makes clear, the reports of adultery may or may not have been true (the script suggests Kennedy was mostly interested in luring her to work in his upcoming presidential campaign office), but Kennedy had been heavily drinking, and after the accident his delay in reporting what had happened may have directly caused Kopechne’s death, as he used every ounce of his family’s influence and wiles to escape serious consequences for his actions.  The utter corruption of the system may be even more shocking for the sheer matter-of-factness with which director John Curran presents it.  It’s fair to say that Chappaquiddick may have had more dramatic impact with an injection of Sorkinism–although Jason Clarke is completely convincing as Teddy Kennedy, it falls to Ed Helms, of all people, to be the moral center of the story, and while he delivers admirably, it’s still a small and not very colorful role.  (In an even smaller turn, Bruce Dern manages to convey a scarily despicable stroke-ridden Joe Kennedy with a handful of words and some deadly glares.)  Allen and Logan are more interested in the mechanics of the cover-up than its larger implications, and that limits the film.  Nevertheless, this is a piercingly intelligent footnote to history, and one with plenty of relevance today.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."