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The Descendants

Director: George Clooney - Run time: 115 mins 

Review by Bill Harrington

The Descendants is essential viewing for those cinema goers who have always held the belief that George Clooney is an actor of considerable charm but limited to his own well practiced mannerisms and comfortable range. Despite his considerable collection of awards and nominations I was firmly of the view myself, until I saw this film. Integral to pretty much every scene his measured performance amuses during the lighter scenes and, most triumphantly, moves during the sombre moments. Just last weekend he picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and another Oscar nomination for the star who once had second billing in Return of the Killer Tomatoes now seems certain.

He plays Matthew King, a dedicated and parsimonious lawyer based in Hawaii, father of two troublesome daughters and husband to Liz, a woman whose lust for life and excitement has resulted in her involvement in a speedboat accident that has placed her into an irreversible coma. King keeps a devoted vigil, until he learns that his wife has not been entirely faithful to him. With the time fast approaching when his wife will pass on, King strives to learn more about her infidelities, while also struggling to connect with his daughters and settle an inheritance deal that will make his family rich but betray all that his forebears have built.  

Clearly not a man to rush a project this is the fourth high profile film by Alexander Payne, following on from Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). Themes running through those previous films, particularly Schmidt, are evident here. In a nutshell, it’s about a man coming to terms with change imposed upon him. Clooney’s character struggles to express his feelings. He’s happy to immerse himself in work, even while all around him threatens to fall apart. Family and friends treat him as a bit of a doormat, knowing he is unlikely to rise to anything they say to him. Physically he is awkward (just watch him run), and his attempts to get his own back on those that have wronged him are moderated by his inhibition. It’s very much a different role to what I’m used to from Clooney, although I confess I’ve not seen everything he’s made. He’s vulnerable, a little lost, but to credit the performance he is no caricature.  

There is good support from the cast. Shailene Woodley is strong as King’s troubled but competent and self-reliant daughter Alexandra. It’s nice to see Beau Bridges on the big screen again, and Matthew Lillard does well in a small but important role. Robert Forster steals scenes as Clooney’s tough, blinkered father in law. Some mention must be made of Patricia Hastie who, other than a brief opening sequence in which she is active, spends the entire film bedridden. The depiction of her condition is convincingly stark. 

Most importantly of course the film entertains, from its intriguing opening to its amusing coda. The wonderful soundtrack is supplied almost solely by Hawaiian musicians and it’s a fine advert for their talents. There is plenty of humour; mostly gentle, occasionally broad. It sustains the film (which, if it has one fault it’s that it’s a tad too long) until the profoundly moving conclusion. Indeed, perhaps the film’s most important scene near the end is as touching as anything I’ve seen at the cinema in decades. An unwavering close-up and some very simple lines, delivered beautifully. A moment that had this reviewer gripping his seat tightly, to stymie any potential blubbing in front of a hardened preview audience. Although perhaps secretly everyone else was doing the same.

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