For months I’ve heard about Clint Eastwood’s new film, Changeling, and Angelina Jolie’s much buzzed-about performance. Still, I had no idea what it was about, and had vague visions of Ms. Jolie being chased around by a creaky old wheelchair, like Trish Van Devere in the similarly named horror flick from the ’70s.
Happily, nothing that cheesy befalls Jolie, but almost every other indignity does, as she plays a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles whose son is kidnapped. Based on real events, Changeling is a gorgeously shot, beautifully acted suspense melodrama that should give Jolie another shot at an Oscar nomination. Eastwood has shown a talent for capturing the period just right in his films, but in Changeling, his recreation of L.A. in the ’20s and ’30s is breathtaking, right down to the trolleys and roller-skating operators, making this a totally immersive experience.
Christine Collins (Jolie), a loving and devoted mother, lives alone with her shy young son, Walter. One terrible day, she is called into work, and she feels guilty because she had promised to take Walter to the movies. Instead, she leaves him in front of the radio and promises him she’ll make it up to him the next day. When she returns home late that evening, she is horrified to find the boy missing, and the police unwilling to investigate for at least 24 hours.
The nightmare stretches on for months, as no leads come in on Walter’s whereabouts. Then, miraculously, a boy is found in Illinois who fits his description. The LAPD, wracked by scandal and in sore need of a PR boost, “reunites” mother and child, only to discover that the boy is not Walter.
Jolie captures Christine’s dismay as she is bullied by the police into saying that the “changeling” is her own son, fully aware that Walter must still be out there, crying out for her to find him. As she fights to get help, she is threatened and labeled crazy, but she can’t give up. The story takes a suspenseful turn as a possible kidnapper is revealed, a sickening Pied Piper who uses his own nephew as bait.
Changeling is a melodrama of the highest order, with evil conspirators ready to destroy Christine without a second thought, but it is immensely satisfying due to Jolie’s heartbreaking performance, Eastwood’s taut direction and casting, and J. Michael Straczynski’s richly layered script. In a year of films that have not yet impressed me, Changeling is an exception, one of the best I’ve seen.
UPDATE: Changeling is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.