I knew two things before I went to see Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. The first was that it is nominated for a heap of those golden statue things and the second was that George Clooney is good at acting. However, despite the Oscar buzz and Clooney’s credentials I went in with a certain amount of trepidation. If Oscar season 2011 had taught me one thing, it was that going to a film with grand expectations just because the Academy deemed it worthy of nomination is a recipe for disappointment. Also, I’d been hearing pretty mixed reviews of the film itself. Most agreed Clooney had done an admirable job, but that the film was perhaps a little slow. It sounded eerily like it could be another ‘True Grit’ incident. However, despite my reservations (and wondering whether my £6.50 was better spent on several more boxes of cheerios) I found myself standing in front of the box office at NPH asking for a ticket.
What I found was not the ever-so-slightly dull experience I had worried about. Actually, I’d go as far as saying The Descendants is one of the best character-led pieces I have seen in a long time. Of course big Georgie-boy deserves masses of praise, but I feel he’s already got plenty of that so I won’t gush too much about his excellent and moving portrayal of land baron and father Matt King.
The story begins with Elizabeth King’s speed-boat accident that not only leaves her comatose, but also leaves her husband (Clooney) to look after their two daughters, while trying to prepare himself and those around him for the worst. It is the story of a struggle in paradise, however the film really doesn’t feel like it’s ever building to a big revelation or conclusion, which is perhaps what many people dislike about it. Instead the thing that seems to matter are the relationships between the characters in their attempts to come to terms with Elizabeth’s condition. You always kind of know that Elizabeth is never going to recover, and quite frankly that is the film’s strongest point. There is no great miracle, with Elizabeth regaining consciousness and rejoining the family unit. Instead the audience sees the reality of a group of people, all with vastly contrasting impressions of Elizabeth, saying goodbye.
What struck me most about the film was its simplicity. I can see how it might be perceived as a slow and unchallenging narrative. There aren’t any big surprises, even King’s eventual decision not to sell his land is the obvious outcome from about 10 minutes into the film. Instead what the film gives the audience is a slice of reality and the chance to really think about the characters themselves. In an industry where big production, expensive action sequences and/or the generally fantastical have become the norm, The Descendants attempts to champion a simpler approach, one rooted more in representing the reality of the human condition and showing that life in the slow lane is not necessarily a bad thing. It might seem like a topic and moral that has been done to death, but there was something special about The Descendants that had even my iron-clad heart breaking.
What I found surprising in the film were the amount of laugh-out-loud moments, mostly thanks to Clooney and Nick Krause’s brilliant Sid, who brought some genuine hilarity even at the darkest of moments. I could go on for days about all the characters in this film, but I am aware many of you just want to know whether this is a film you should spend your money on. I will therefore tentatively say you should, with perhaps one warning. This is a laid back and slow film. This is not fast paced escapist entertainment, but to me that is the point. It’s all humanity and heart, about people that are just trying to find balance again. There are many sequences in the film with little dialogue, but somehow to me it never seemed like a challenge to my attention and I was actually glad for some reflection time. Also, the soundtrack is spot on, the setting is beautiful and the quality of character writing and acting is some of the highest I’ve experienced in recent years.
Perhaps I was just feeling particularly warm-hearted at the time, but a film like this rarely leaves me welling up. And it happened three times with this one. For once it was nice to leave the spectacle of cinema behind and watch a simpler, yet more affecting, study of family life. It’s probably not a film for everybody, and I won’t be tipping it for a lot of Oscar success (besides George of course) but I am genuinely really glad I went to see this film.