Paul Greengrass’s charming western would form the ideal centrepiece for a festival that showcases directors working hard to be something other than what we expect them to be.
Since 2002, every one of Greengrass’s movies — from Bloody Sunday through the Bourne adventures and on to 22 July — has been an officially certified “Greengrass Movie”. That’s to say a mobile camera has chased frantically after different classes of cascading violence (some fantastic, some drawn chillingly from real life) while overlapping dialogue spreads confusion.
There are opportunities here for the old Paul to show himself. About halfway through, Captain Jefferson Kidd, played with characteristic grizzled charm by Tom Hanks, confronts a gang of hoodlums in a precipitous ravine. But we are spared the Kidd Supremacy. Calling up a few reminders of Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, Greengrass shoots the scene with buttoned-up restraint. Dariusz Wolski allows his camera to tarry on the quieter outcrops. The shots stretch out as the tension builds. This is browner tone of violence altogether.
In truth, News of the World does not have that much to do with the shedding of blood. Based on a novel by Paulette Jiles, the film hangs around the relationship between Hanks's battered civil war veteran and a traumatised orphan played brilliantly by current SAG and Golden Globe nominee Helena Zengel.
Kidd is one of those interesting fellows who, in a time of modest literacy levels, travelled the country reading from the world’s newspapers for money. The film opens with him happening upon a lynched body and a young white girl in native American clothing. The Captain, after various disputes and confusions, finds himself transporting Joanna — so named before her parents were slaughtered — to German-American relatives in another part of Texas.
Little bits of her history sneak out. She prefers to be called Cicada, her Indian name. She briefly speaks German and shudders at unprocessed memories of carnage.
It hardly needs to be said that News of the World is travelling in the shadow of The Searchers. Just as John Wayne stepped into his archetype for the John Ford film (solid, heroic, unwaveringly masculine), Tom Hanks inhabits one of his own stock characters here (avuncular, gentle, unwaveringly humane).
Certain flavours in the screenplay suggest, however, that a less refined actor may have once been in the sights. The trauma of war and everyday bereavement have driven Kidd from civilisation. Once a preacher, he uses his forensic talents to make captivating yarns of the news. One can easily see Tommy Lee Jones or Russell Crowe breathing fire and brimstone towards his listeners.
Hanks favours the fireside-chat approach. Come hither and let Mr Rogers tell you about the mining disaster.
The film makes implicit arguments about how, even back then, consumers could be bullied into the echo chamber. Resisting a tyrant’s efforts to press an unreliable local paper on him, the Captain wins over his audience with tales from farther afield. Thus was the “bias so-call MSM” propagated in 1870.
All this is mere packaging for the present within: a duet between actors who, though born half a century apart, remain perfectly in tune throughout (when not deliberately sparking discordancy). Breakout star of the excellent German film System Crasher, Zengel resists all temptations to play cute. There is a simmering fury in here that emerges through glances, winces and pinched exhalations. These two lovely performers deserve one another.
News of the World moves at a leisurely pace. Not every episode is a success — the confusing, sentimental images of Native Americans emerging from a sandstorm would not be out of place in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. This is an awfully clean version of borderline anarchy. But the relationships are teased out so delightfully that few will feel it worth complaining. Even the sentimental denouement is forgivable.
On Netflix from February 10th