changelingOnce seen as a respected institution of Western movies (and Dirty Harry), Clint Eastwood, now 78, has revealed himself to be an adept storyteller who just gets better and better with each new release. Like his 2006 war film Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling is a provocative and relentless film that looks on the past with coldness and suggests the present has learnt few lessons from it. Child abuse and infanticide feature heavily, but really act as a prism through which the central themes of real-life police corruption and the disempowerment of women are played out with brutal force.

Meticulously researched by the former journalist and Babylon 5 creator  J. Michael Straczynski, who lifted most of the screenplay directly from court records, Changeling is the factual account of a mother whose young boy disappeared, and of a corrupt Police Department in 1928 Los Angeles that would go to any lengths to save its own skin.

Angelina Jolie plays Christine Collins, a single mother who works as a supervisor in a Los Angeles telephone exchange. She spends her free time looking after her nine-year-old son, Walter, to whom Christine is clearly devoted. One evening, Christine returns home late to find that Walter has gone missing. After months of fruitless searching, the cops present her with a young boy who they insist is hers. Christine begs to differ, pointing out that her ersatz offspring is three inches shorter than Walter and has been circumcised, but the police bully her into taking the boy home. With no help from the authorities, she turns to radio evangelist Gustav Briegleb who brings her case into the public eye.

At this point the film moves from personal tragedy to gothic nightmare. The police secretly remove Christine to LA County Hospital’s draconian psychiatric ward where she is surrounded by crazy-haired women, most of whom have also fallen foul of the LA Police Department, and given drugs to silence her cries for justice.

Changeling is refreshingly direct. There are no histrionics, no elaborate sub-plots. It’s to Eastwood’s credit that he lets the story speak for itself – the story of a police department that will lie, torture and produce false witnesses, all for the purpose of protecting its reputation. This is strictly reportage, and like the real-life events that it chronicles, the film refuses to be squeezed into the neat format of a three act play.

As a period drama, Changeling is painstaking to the point of nostalgia in its recreation of 1920’s Los Angeles. A gently melodic score composed by Eastwood himself, together with Tom Stern’s sombre cinematography underpin a credible yet uncompromising critique of the era’s corrupt authorities. Stern’s rich colours are muted in this daylight horror, suggesting that even the sunniest days cannot dispel the pervasive evil that lurks in the human heart.

Jolie gives an impassioned but unfussy performance – her finest to date – as the campaigning mother, desperate to see the return of her son. Her initial reaction to his disappearance is to be expected, but as the weeks and months roll on with no trace of him, so her anger and resolve increase, bringing down the whole fabric of a reprobate establishment.

But it is Jason Butler Harner as the murderous Gordon Northcott who steals the show. He is the embodiment of the sick killer – self-pitying, consummately evil and utterly out of reach to inhabitants of the sane world. But though the real-life Northcott had a traumatic childhood – his parents turned out to be his father and sister, enough to mess with anyone’s head – Eastwood wisely leaves his background out of the film, focusing instead on Christine’s plight and relentless campaigning.

Eastwood handles his story masterfully, and though some have complained about the film’s realism (why would a single mother live in such a large house?), Changeling remains a compelling and credible thriller.

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