Thursday, July 30, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird ★★★★

Image result for To kill a mockingbird film stills

    When it comes to the history of the cinema and to the source of a film's subject matter, adaptation has always been prevalent. It is due to this fact that numerous quality pictures have been simply overshadowed by their novel counterpart, and "To Kill a Mockingbird" is no exception. Harper Lee's autobiographical tale of racial injustice, class hostility--and a number of other topics essential to understanding human nature--was an immediate success, with both audiences and critics alike. It won a Pulitzer Prize for its rich narration and for its uncanny ability to warm our hearts, and it remains a hallmark of twentieth-century American literature. (This is not to mention the era in which the book was published, as many of the portrayed values of the American Deep South, set in the 1930s, were still relevant and widespread at that time; an almost unimaginable time, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

    With that being said, it is quite understandable for the film version of this particular book to be considered of lesser importance, yet this notion could not be more incorrect. For, what we have here is a picture that not only conveys the message of the 1960 novel with relative ease, but it captures, visually, one of the most fascinating and profound human interest stories to ever be told in the medium itself. Of course, the latter statement is not in reference to Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), our shining example of morality and resident racial equality advocate, nor is it referring to Tom Robinson, our victimized African-American male. At its core, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is concerned with one event, and one event only: That being, the loss of innocence of a little girl, at a time when children were routinely exposed to a non-sugarcoated existence.

    Maycomb, a fictional Alabama town and what can surely be considered a microcosm of the American South in the 1960s, is filled with a number of personalities and prejudices, as much as it is filled with dusty roads and white picket fences. We watch (from what seems to be a routine execution of the objective point of view) as the adults attend to their occupations and while the children indulge in adolescent imagination and child curiosity.

    The Finch family, consisting of Atticus, a stern man and loving father, Scout (Mary Badham), our guide to the events at hand, and brother Jem, are one of several families to be stricken with grief once Tom Robinson becomes charged with the rape of a man's teenage daughter. (This stems from the simplistic fact that Atticus is the only defense attorney that will even remotely consider taking the case and the fact that both Jem and Scout will become acquainted with the hatred and persecution of such dealings.) Robinson's trial, which ultimately takes center stage, will uncover the nature of this small and seemingly innocent Alabama community and will shatter the barrier between guiltlessness and adulthood.

Image result for To Kill a mockingbird film stills Peck
    If one is to critique this work of art in any sort of depth, then the wonderful performances of Gregory Peck and Mary Badham should inevitably become one of the topics of discussion. Peck is absolutely brilliant in his role as literary hero Atticus Finch, and he projects this strong and sincere disposition in one of the most genuine manners I have ever witnessed on the silver screen. (This is in addition to a number of dramatic moments in which Peck exudes the admirable qualities of Finch, even during long stretches of silence; it is truly a performance defined by this sense of quietness and emotional restraint, which is as powerful a technique as any when it comes to the arsenal of the actor.)

    As for Badham, she is pure, she is authentic and undeniably riveting. Child actors and actresses may not fully grasp the big picture when it comes to the material of the script, and in this particular instance, that may not be such a bad thing. Scout is surely the heart of our tale here, yet it is quite easy to dismiss her contribution to things once the story shifts to adult matters. Badham, the youngest actor to ever receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, keeps us engaged at times when we theoretically should be focused elsewhere. The ultimate goal of any actor is to re-create humanity in a sense, through the mannerisms and actions of their character; however, it is evident that Badham is simply a child being a child, and this makes for one of the most honest performances you will ever see in film.

    Nevertheless, one must give credit where credit is due with regard to the adaptation of this novel into a film. Sure, the source material is refined and undoubtedly first-rate, yet in order to make that transition from one medium to another, there must be top notch craftsmanship in numerous areas-- namely in cinematography, screenwriting, and direction. "To Kill a Mockingbird" excels in its execution of cinematographic techniques, especially when it comes to creating a sense of distance between our adult figures and the children. (There are several scenes in which this can be ascertained, as our adolescent characters are regularly at a different level of depth and positioning on-screen, and while they become hindered by physical barriers in the face of events that are impure, even if their eyes are still able to view the actions at hand.)

Image result for To Kill a mockingbird film stills Scout in bed
    The writing of the script, taken on by Horton Foote who received an Academy Award for his contribution, is arguably the most difficult task when translating a book to the screen; in part because the latter medium is entirely limited as to the depth one can bestow to plot and character development. Foote certainly condenses the content of the novel to a tolerable amount, while never losing sight of what is most important: the coming of age of Scout. (Scenes and dialogue are crafted magnificently in an effort to communicate her innocence, and the unavoidable loss of such beauty through what takes place.) It is hard not to be lured into this realm, as Scout questions whether or not an individual is dead, with no real indication as to the meaning of the term (other than one being absent) and while she inexplicably turns back a mob and chooses to sit in the African-American section of the courthouse while Robinson's trial plays out.

    Yet, although Foote provides these opportunities, it is director Robert Mulligan who executes them with such care and skill, which is best encapsulated by a scene that simultaneously gives us our theme, while delicately capturing a heartfelt moment between a brother and sister, and a moment of reflection from our distanced adult.

    After being tucked in for the night, Scout begins to ask Jem questions pertaining to their mother, who died while she was too young to remember. The camera perfectly captures her face through the opening of her bedroom curtains (also known as an execution of foreground framing) as she exhales a frustrated sigh and as she begins to inquire about her past. The camera then brilliantly takes a subtle zoom out, and pans until it settles on the cloaked and isolated figure of Atticus on the front porch. This scene is genuinely one of the most beautiful and touching moments in the history of the cinema, as it portrays a point in time that captures the essence of what we deem to be human existence. To have never seen this picture in adulthood should truly be considered a sin.      

1 comment:

  1. I applaud your take on this film Sir, as other reviews I have read seem to have completely missed the mark on this film concerning the underlying values and quintessential questions that life asks each and every one of us- that is if you have a brain. I agree with you on your comment about the window scene as well- the frustration of not understanding ideas which we wholeheartedly will never truly understand. Innocence is captured in this film beautifully, as is the moment one becomes more realized as a human. One would hope the cinema would return to such eloquent films. I, however, wouldn't hold my breath. Irregardless, wonderful review. I look forward to reading more of your opinions (hopefully printed one day), as I feel your notions are captured and elaborated simultaneously on in an intellectual and entertaining level. Although, I guess if my brain decides to go numb any time soon I could always pick up a paper and read about pacing or remarkable CGI.