'The Descendants' (dir: Alexander Payne, 2011) Cert: 15
It's been 8 long years since Alexander Payne has blessed us with his cinematic presence but thankfully, he has returned to restore some order. His last feature, 'Sideways' (2004) remains as one of my favourite modern comedy films and is a sheer example of just how important a great screenplay is. In 2011 however, Payne has teamed up with George Clooney for 'The Descendants'; a character study and 'dramedy' set amongst the gorgeous backdrop of Hawaii.
Matt King (Clooney) is a successful land baron living what seems to be a dream life. However, when his wife is involved in a tragic boating accident, he is forced to re-build a connection with his two daughters, particularly the bitter-mouthed and frustrated Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) whose return from college provokes greater problems.
For the most part, cinema has difficulty having it both ways; a film can make you laugh or make you cry, but it's a challenge to mould these emotions together so closely that one moment you are aching at the sides and suddenly feel guilty for laughing a moment later. This is the design and distribution of 'The Descendants' and it is quite simply astonishing.
Payne's dynamite screenplay features some of the most beautifully constructed monologues and hilarious dialogue exchanges this year, but it is also poignant and reeling. This is his film and he invites his viewers in to fully embrace it, and in doing so, it is impossible not to be taken by the emotional gravity. The film opens with a brilliant voice-over piece from Clooney in which he states that people think living in Hawaii is the equivalent of paradise - it's a profoundly funny introduction which sets the entire mood for the film's two hour duration.
|Still from 'The Descendants' (dir: Alexander Payne, 2011)|
The cinematography is delicate and sumptuous; sweeping shots of the gentle sea rippling onto the golden beaches, acres and acres of plush foliage that swallows the foreground and cloudless skies that hang above the not-so-perfect 'paradise' are all hopelessly beautiful and stun with their realism and authenticity. Payne's direction provides comfort for his personal screenplay too - many uses of close-ups or two-shots make audiences feel involved with the characters. We are not watching them, we are amongst them and are understanding all the drama and issues that have absorbed their bubble which they call life.
This being a character drama, terrific performances are essential and thankfully 'The Descendants' parades it's talents in true American style. Clooney, who one has always been a great fan and defender of, supplies a deeply thought-provoking, moving and gracefully developed portrayal as Matt. Using his signature charm in minimal bursts and reserving his true and rather sad colours until moments necessary, Clooney makes his character difficult to judge and he consequently surprises on many occasions. This is fresh and frankly sublime territory for him and he is clearly comfortable within. This is amongst his best ever performances and an Oscar nomination is certainly on the cards.
Woodley is also staggering as Alexandra; she is so rounded, fleshed and formed that it feels wrong to consider her a 'character'. She doesn't perform like a typical angst-ridden teenager, this is a girl whose life has been tainted and peppered with distress and aggression. She isn't bratty or annoying, she is expressive and understanding. Like the rest of the brilliant young female talent coming from the US, Woodley is earning her stripes and one would not be surprised if awards are coming her way too. She is utterly magnetic.
Her friend and silly tag-along Sid (Nick Krause) is also a breath of fresh air - he appears originally as some dumb stoner but soon gets the same development treatment and consequently is involved with one of the film's most touching and tear-jerking moments. Amara Miller is wonderful too as the younger sibling Scottie who is happy to 'flip the bird' at people she doesn't like and ask adult questions about morality and being. She is frequently charming and provides brilliant comic relief.
2011 has been a great year and Payne's latest is another jewel in the crown. 'The Descendants' is easily amongst my year's highlights and one could not recommend it enough. This is an affecting, greatly involving and supremely satisfying picture which captures everything that's great about the character-narrative balance. Dare I say it, but it's better than 'Sideways'...
Payne continues to prove he is one of America's greatest storytellers - 'The Descendants' is a celebration of comedy and drama. A masterful feature.
By Chris Haydon