Universal // 2008 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // February 17th, 2009
To find her son, she did what no one else dared.
Changeling: A child or thing believed to have been secretly substituted for another. -- Canadian Oxford Dictionary
In 1928, 9-year-old Walter Collins, son of telephone operator Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), disappeared from his Los Angeles home. Five months later, the LAPD, desperate for a good news story to counter the charges of corruption and excessive force plaguing the department, returned to Ms. Collins a boy they said was her own. Collins immediately knew that the boy was not her Walter; the imposter was three inches shorter and circumcised with dental records that didn't match. The police, wholly uninterested in having yet another error brought to the public's attention, discounted Collins in the media, using their own corrupt "experts" to do so, eventually having her committed to a mental institution.
At the urging of an activist preacher (John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich), Collins fought one of the city's most powerful institutions with the aim of having her son's case reopened, and, hopefully, Walter brought home to her.
Amazingly, this is a true story.
If Changeling were not deemed a true story at its opening, and had I not been aware of the copious research writer J. Michael Stracznski (creator of Babylon 5) included with his screenplay, I would have had a difficult time believing that it really happened. The completeness with which Christine Collins was dismissed, and the condescension and disrespect and misogyny leveled in her direction, is shameful, infuriating, and shocking. It wasn't enough that she had to cope with losing a child; she lost a great deal of her status as a person, and had to fight with everything she had to gain it back. The twists and turns of the story are bizarre, and it is difficult to guess what the ultimate fate of each character will be. This is strong, strong storytelling; because of it, Changeling is one of the best pictures of 2008.
Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers) occupies a space all his own, using largely the same sparse, unadorned yet eminently watchable style throughout his thirty-eight years as a director. His movies never drag. They're lean and efficient, like the grizzled boxing coach he played in Million Dollar Baby, never wasting energy or getting bogged down in sentimentality. Given the subject matter, Changeling could have easily been made as a weepy, melodramatic mess with big performances and sweeping, telegraphed emotion. Under Eastwood's direction, it is none of those things.
Present in most scenes and carrying the emotional weight of the entire picture, Angelina Jolie gives one of the most nuanced performances of her career, choosing to underplay her character's rage and sadness, letting it cross her face but rarely take over her actions. Her Christine Collins is fiercely determined, yet appropriately demure for the era; one of the major themes of Changeling is the vast inequality of power between women and men, and Collins is not necessarily looking to liberate herself from the system. She just wants her son back. Whether it is the media-loving chief of police (played with gusto by Colm Feore (The Insider) or Malkovich's driven preacher -- who uses Collins' plight to further his own social justice agenda -- Collins is often at the mercy of external forces, but she uses what control she does have to continue searching for Walter.
Changeling goes to dark places, with scenes and circumstances that stay with you long after the credits roll. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it is tasteful without fail, deftly avoiding exploitation for the sake of drama. It's not a perfect film -- a couple of the characters seem monotonously villainous, and a scene of Collins being rescued from the institution plays out with a bit too much coincidence -- but it is classy, old-school filmmaking.
Universal has done a bang-up job with the Blu-ray release of Changeling starting with its crisp, detailed image quality. Shadows abound, and detail within those shadows is vitally important: fortunately, this disc excels in that area, giving what I'm sure is a very accurate representation of the theatrical experience. In only two shots did I notice any digital noise, and it was minor. The fine detail of period costumes can be fully appreciated, and the colors, while often desaturated, are accurate. This was a lovely disc to watch. The soundtrack, in DTS-HD Master Audio, is equally strong, with a good deal of natural ambiance. Dialogue is distortion free, and the minimalist score, composed by Eastwood himself, blends seamlessly into the sound design. For a period drama, I was surprised by the immersiveness of this soundtrack.
Starting with a decent 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, oddly named "Partners in Crime: Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie" yet focusing on the entire development and production of the picture, Changeling is supported by a solid set of special features. There's a roughly 6-minute piece specifically on Jolie, shared with the DVD release, then we're on to some very cool Blu-ray exclusives using Universal's U-Control functionality. While watching the feature, viewers can choose between a picture-in-picture window of cast and crew interviews and production footage, a photographic comparison of Los Angeles from the twenties to now, and a series of archival images and documents comparing the fictionalized world of the movie with the real individuals. While some might bemoan the fact that these features aren't viewable separate from the film, the menu intuitively directs you to each new snippet of information, meaning you don't have to rewatch the whole movie to see one series of features if you don't want to. Changeling makes good use of Blu-ray's added functionality.
Changeling is a thoroughly engrossing, powerful film that entertains and provokes, featuring a bravura performance by Angelina Jolie. Don't miss it.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R