Saturday, 8 April 2017

FIVE STAR FILM: Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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Girl, Interrupted (USA, 1999)
Directed by James Mangold
Starring Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Clea DuVall, Brittany Murphy

In my review of The Departed, I spoke about how winning an Oscar can often tie either a film or a person associated with it eternally to that achievement. That level of cinematic immortality (or in some cases infamy) is the level of success for which most actors and filmmakers would kill, even with the need to take the Academy's decisions both past and present with a pinch of salt. But if someone is rewarded for giving a particular performance or doing something especially well, it creates the pressure to always be that good (or always do that one thing) from thereon in.

 
It seems to be particularly the case with female Oscar winners that their careers begin to buckle under this newfound pressure. Julia Roberts has never topped Erin Brockovich, Halle Berry quickly faded after Monster's Ball, and both Tatum O'Neill and Shirley Temple saw a decline in the fortunes after their respective wins. There are male examples of this too (like Cuba Gooding Jr., for instance), but given the many twists and turns of Angelina Jolie's career, you may well put her in the same category. However, while her work on Girl, Interrupted is not her finest performance overall - that would be A Mighty Heart - it is the jewel in the crown of this cinematic masterpiece.
 
Given its subject matter and its status as an adaptation of a popular novel, it's very tempting to simply label Girl, Interrupted as the female One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Aside from the common setting of a mental hospital, both stories play with the concept of the unreliable narrator, both set up character dynamics based on manipulation and defiance of authority, and both end on a decidedly bittersweet note. Both authors also have front-line experience of the mental health industry, if such a word is not to crude; while Girl, Interrupted author Susanna Keysen spent two years as a patient on a psychiatric ward, Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey spent some time working as an orderly on the graveyard shift at a facility in California.
 
You would expect, given their respective backgrounds, that Cuckoo's Nest would take a structural perspective on institutionalisation (as The Shawshank Redemption later did) while Girl, Interrupted would be a personal, memory-driven story, like the original novel was. In fact, what's interesting about the film of Girl, Interrupted - directed and co-scripted by James Mangold - is that it is very interested in the structural problems present within the American system. It manages to pull off the same rare trick as Milos Forman's film, being simultaneously a deeply personal depiction of the nuances of mental illness and the ways in which the existing structures of American society let people down and dehumanise them.
 
Girl, Interrupted also pulls off another trick, namely being a period piece which still has applications to contemporary society. On the one hand, it is a fascinating time capsule of the late-1960s and the role of young people therein: American society is in the grip of unprecedented social change, with many of its most established and respected institutions being questioned at their core, and no-one truly knows how to deal with young people. While in other stories Susanna would have run away to join a rock band, or robbed a bank, or sought out spiritual enlightenment (a la Zabriskie Point), her parents lock her away so that they don't have to deal with her problems. They choose their dated values and maintaining their social standing over trying to understand their own children, foreshadowing the conservative backlash against the counter-culture that was already starting to creep in.
 
On the other hand, Girl, Interrupted is a more universal story of people who simply cannot help who they are. We aren't given a straightforward, overly pat explanation for why Suzanna ended up at the asylum; it's not put down to a family trauma, or blamed on her being 'sinful', or anything so cheap and inappropriate. Neither is her illness ever presented to us as being something that can be easily conquered, whether by positive thinking or taking the right number of pills: it's a painful, long-term anguish which some learn to live with and others tragically cannot face. Like Adrian Brody's character in The Pianist, Suzanna is not so much a hero as a survivor, and while she does break from the other characters by making it out in one piece, she has been irrevocably changed by her experience, for better and for worse.
 
Winona Ryder as an actress has always had a knack for capturing disconnection from other people, whether it's the older generation (Edward Scissorhands), her high school peers (Heathers) or her competitors (Black Swan). While Jolie often threatens to steal away the limelight, her performance is equally crucial to prevent the film from just being a collection of loud, angry, mad people about whom we would have no reason to care. Like Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys before her, she stays just the right side of busy and histrionic, making the outbursts convincing and meaningful but also allowing the quiet moments to speak volumes. It's a very fine performance which deserved to be recognised just as much as Jolie's.
As for Jolie herself, she deserved most if not all of the plaudits she received both then and now. I said in my review of Wanted that she "always been in her element inhabiting individuals who are in some way damaged, conflicted, morally ambiguous or self-doubting". She takes Lisa, who could just be a sociopathic, controlling bitch, and slowly but surely teases out all the character's frustrations, neuroses and her emptiness as a person. If you ever want to prove to a non-fan that there is more to Jolie than losing gorgeous or kicking ass, show them the sequence near the end of this film where she breaks down and attempts suicide. It's a gut-wrenchingly honest and powerful moment which goes some way towards cementing this film's greatness.
 
One of the criticisms that was made of Girl, Interrupted when it was released is that it was "melodramatic" - in other words, that Mangold had toned down and smoothed out the book to give the audience some form of closure over the character. Keysen herself was displeased with the adaptation, branding the section in which Susanna and Lisa try to escape as "drivel" and criticising the filmakers for "inventing" whole sections which never reflected her story. It's difficult to argue that this is the most faithful adaptation in the history of cinema, but as with The Imitation Game there is an argument for departing from the letter of historical fact if a deeper, more thematic truth is presented to the audience as a result.
 
The key scene in the film, if not the key line, comes during Lisa's breakdown, when Suzanna declares: "Maybe everybody out there is a liar. And maybe the whole world is "stupid" and "ignorant". But I'd rather be in it. I'd rather be fucking in it, then down here with you." This is the major breakthrough that the character experiences, acknowledging her own failures and the shortcomings of the world outside, but realising that the only way out is to learn to deal with it, one day at a time.
 
If that revelation, and that whole scene, had come out of nowhere, then the film would have felt melodramatic, with the characters having to bend to the needs of the plot after an hour or so of character-driven storytelling. But the escape beforehand lends it greater credibility, or at least makes the development more believable for an audience which has not endured her suffering. The taste of the outside world Susanna is given with Lisa and Daisy is bittersweet, and what joy they experience from their release is short-lived, shattered by Daisy's demise and Lisa's callous attitude towards it. This is not a fairy tale in which the outside world is free from trouble; it is a different kind of prison, albeit one in which there are many different ways of dealing with what ails us. If nothing else, Girl, Interrupted deserves credit for taking such a mature approach while pitching to a predominantly younger audience.
 
Girl, Interrupted also looks fantastic, thanks in part to cinematographer Jack N. Green, who previously worked with Clint Eastwood on Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County. Both he and Mangold share a love of period detail and a desire to use historical quirks to shed light on character and mood; the drug store with simply 'Drugs' on the shopfront is both an accurate reflection of the setting and a nod to the blunt, unhelpful nature of the treatment. Mangold's compositions alternate between intimate and intimidating, judging when to switch very deftly, and the colour scheme beautifully reflects the worn, frayed nature of the protagonists' mental states; the screen is filled with browns and worn yellows, the white surgical robes are dusty, and even the hospital has a tumble-down, faded quality.
Girl, Interrupted is a powerful and compelling examination of mental illness which has aged extremely well and still resonates with modern audiences. While the central performances remain both its driving force and its most famous characteristic, the film has great depth and honesty throughout, shedding light on a lot of important issues regarding mental health, abuse, manipulation and dependency. Regardless of what Susanna Keysen may think, it is a truly stunning film that should be seen by anyone who has the stomach for it. 

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For more of my thoughts on Angelina Jolie's career, check out my WhatCulture! article on her work.

NEXT REVIEW: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

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