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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 05:08 am

Jolie transforms before our eyes in Changeling

Changeling Running time 2:20 Rated R ShowPlace West

What with her being the subject of so much tabloid fodder, it's easy to forget what an effective actress Angelina Jolie is. Clint Eastwood's latest, Changeling, reminds us just how talented she is, as the actress is given the opportunity to run the gamut of emotions here and grasps it with both hands. As Christine Collins, Jolie delivers a devastating turn, breaking our hearts as a forlorn mother desperately looking for her missing son and eventually gaining strength and fortitude as she finds herself battling a corrupt police force that refuses to help her.

Based on a true story, Collins' nine-year-old son Walter went missing on March 19, 1928, having been abducted from her Los Angeles home while away at work. The police were initially unresponsive to her pleas for help but eventually claimed to have recovered the boy. However, Collins knew that the child that had been returned to her wasn't her own and despite empathically complaining to the authorities, she's ignored. When she persists, she's thrown into the county asylum and only the intervention of a crusading preacher, Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), gets her released and gives her the strength to expose the corruption that has overtaken the police department.

While Collins' trials are engaging, the film's parallel plotline is equally riveting, as a sole detective on the force, Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), stumbles upon a clue that eventually leads him to an isolated farm where he finds the remains of 20 young boys.

We eventually find out that these killings were committed by Gordon Northcott (Jason Butler Harner), a disturbed individual who lured small boys to his farm where they were brutally slain. The question that drives the film's last act is whether Walter was among his victims and the search for the answer becomes the source behind his mother's newfound strength.

As with most based-on-fact tales, this one has been simplified, but with great effect. While the number of the killings has been upped here, Northcott's relationship with his mother, who helped with the killings and was suggested to be incestuous, is thankfully ignored. If Eastwood has a fault as a filmmaker, it's that he can often adapt a leisurely pace in his storytelling, lingering over moments that prevent his work from gaining a full narrative head of steam. Streamlining the story helps him avoid this misstep as he weaves a haunting tale that steadily builds to an unexpectedly melancholy climax.

The entire film rests on Jolie's shoulders and she carries it handily. She seems born of the era in which the film takes place, hearkening back to the screen goddesses of the '20s and '30s. She's captivating from the first frame to the last. Jolie embodies Collins' shattered state after the disappearance of her son but she also reminds us throughout that there's a strength in this woman that allows her to endure and fight. She wisely never overplays any of her big moments, though the material offers her many opportunities to do so, and she delivers a nuanced, moving turn of a woman who finds the will to endure when others would have given up. She's ably supported by Malkovich, who brings a quiet fury to his role of civic crusader, while Amy Ryan gives a nice supporting turn as a fellow inmate and Kelly does a remarkable job as a cop on the take who's suddenly reminded of his duty and executes it well.

The Depression-era details are rendered meticulously here as Eastwood and production designer James Murakami evoke the period in a historically accurate manner. However, the film seems to have a dingy look about it at times, to underscore the sordidness of the tale and those involved. All in all, this is a first-rate production that sports not only some of the finest film acting of the year but also delivers a gripping tale that delivers a small degree of triumph in the midst of an unspeakable tragedy.

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