Maleficent – A film with potential cultural significance and powerful acting.

May 30, 2014

MaleficentC NOTES, movie review by George C. Wilson.

Betrayed love is a very powerful motivational force.  For those who have loved and then have been abandoned and betrayed by the person they trusted a primal desire for retribution can arise.  And while most people have experienced or at least witnessed this all too human story it is hard to imagine Disney, of all of the major movie studios, using this as a theme to drive a major motion picture.  The new film “Maleficent” explores the theme in a way that takes the viewer on an adventure that has many of the standard Disney story devices but one that adds a new dimension to the old adage “there are two sides to every story.”

Angelina Jolie is an actress of sometime terrible beauty.  In the title role she unleashes that aspect of her beauty.  Jolie is of an age where the blush of youthful beauty has fleeted past and she is a survivor of difficult struggles.    This lends credibility and strength to her portrayal.  When Maleficent’s love of a man she trusted is betrayed and something of immeasurable value is taken away from her leaving her crippled in a way that produces breath taking anguish a story of retribution must follow.  Maleficent’s inherent beauty is not twisted on the path of vengeance.  Indeed it becomes, in a way, a weapon of lethality. Maleficent it should be noted in a faery.  Jolie, in character, has prosthetic cheeks, large horns and various eye transforming lenses.  For much of the film her lips are impossibly blood red and yet it is the still beauty of her countenance that clues viewer into what lurks beneath.  Steel and fire lies there.  Betrayed love rarely has had a more powerful poster girl.

The story is a retelling of the legend of Sleeping Beauty from the point of the view of the traditional villain in the well known fairy tale.  This is not a new story device.  The book and Broadway play “Wicked” turned that trick retelling the story of the villainess of Oz and turning it into hundreds of millions of dollars of worth of success.  Copycats followed with varying success.  And actors, of course, are always willing take on the story of the villain.  Many have made successful careers of it.  Or they used villain portrayals to revive flagging careers.  Anthony Hopkins famously did it 25 years ago playing Hannibal Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs”.  Indeed Angelina Jolie follows down a well-worn career path in this role and yet she compels us to watch her as she first embraces vengeance and then sees a way out of its inherent potential for self-destruction.   It is, after all, a Disney movie.  Old Walt would come back from his apocryphal cryogenic grave and crush the studio like Godzilla if ultimately there was not redemption in equal dosage with retribution in this story.  Heroic villainess?  Ok. Unredeemed heroic villainess?  Not acceptable.

Elle Fanning, the now grown former cherubic child actor, is credible as the princess cursed to become a sleeping beauty.  Supporting actors alternately lend the story very good comic relief and boo hiss type craven villainy. In supporting roles the standout performance comes from Sam Riley, the Yorkshire born dark featured actor, who plays a changeling raven magically transformed by Maleficent into all manner beasts to exploit their cunning and terror producing qualities.  In his mostly human form his interactions with his mistress, Maleficent, provide the fulcrum the story pivots on to move towards redemption for the title character.  Riley does an admirable job holding his own against the terrible beauty Jolie unleashes on the screen.  The writers no doubt were counting on the princess with her inner beauty exceeding her considerable outer beauty as being the character that transforms Maleficent’s heart.  And the story progresses that way.  But it is Sam Riley as Diaval that lends his humanity… such as it is… to Jolie’s Maleficent and their relationship provides the most satisfying exemplification of how a villainess can perform a heroic self-transformation.   With lessor actors this story would have been just another 3D and CGI fairytale retelling of a time worn story.  See the 2013 movie bomb Jack the Giant Slayer as a point of reference.

Movies can create their own place in the narrative of the time when they are released.  Some rare movies, at least, can be so powerful as to do that.  Culture altering movies and motion picture industry transforming movies do pop up from time to time.  The movie “Jaws” created the concept of the summer blockbuster forever changing the movie industry.  That wasn’t the intent of Steven Spielberg while creating it but that was a significant outcome.  The movie “The Godfather” altered cultural standards for decades even though Francis Ford Coppola was merely, on the surface, telling a crime story.  “Maleficent” does not reach these heights of cultural relevance in all likelihood.  However, there is potential for this movie to catch a very elusive cultural bounce because of the timing of its release.

In 1979 the movie “The China Syndrome” featured an A list cast but a seemingly farfetched and rather dull plot device.  Following a decade of disaster movies like “Earthquake”, “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno”, a movie about a nuclear accident at a power plant really shouldn’t have been a national headline story for weeks.  The Three Mile Island incident in real life happened to coincide with the movie release.  This added a compelling reason for the public to go and see the movie.  It earned way beyond its projections.  “Maleficent” may… just may… catch a similar bounce.

The recent conscious raising social media driven campaign #YesAllWomen which has been driven by the tragic UCSB killing spree is making headlines.  “Maleficent” is a movie with a strong female character who has been horribly wronged, even mutilated, by a male character on a power trip. Seemingly there could be a tie in.   Will the events of everyday life comingle with this movie in a way that makes it compelling story for people to see?  A significant portion of the potential viewing public feels that women are being victimized in our culture at an alarming rate.  This movie features a character that speaks to that.  This is a movie that says “You think you know this story? Think again.” #YesAllWomen expresses that very sentiment.  An empowered and powerful female character drives this movie.  There is an audience for that.  And a portion of that audience wants a reckoning for wrongs being perpetrated on women.  “Maleficent” carries through on that level very effectively.  Time will tell if current events drive attendance to a movie with a women empowering theme.

“Maleficent”:  Rated PG opens 5/30/14

For the performances of the actors and the potential for cultural significance this movie gets 3 out of 4 stars.

geo c.