The pivotal scene in this Clint Eastwood film takes place at a railway station. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) rushes past a waiting press pack and barricade of police officers to the approaching train. In the distance a boy gets down from the train, accompanied by a middle aged woman. Collins stops short and gazes in shock at the little man before her, the child that the Los Angeles Police Department will insist is hers and make her life miserable to cover up their own shortcomings.
That scene is probably the only one that stayed with me after watching this, the slightest and shallowest of Eastwood’s directorial efforts. The story of a single mother whose child goes missing from home one Sunday morning while she’s at work, and who is forced by a corrupt police force to take in a boy who they claim is her missing child, but one she’s too frustrated and angry to recognize as her own, should have made for great, compelling cinema. But the overwhelming seediness and dark atmosphere of Los Angeles in the twenties - corrupt and filled with murderous rage - and a case like this connected to the serial Wineville Chicken Coop Murders - is not apparent. Each frame and camera movement is tastefully composed. Even the scenes in the mental hospital where Collins is confined after protesting a little too loudly about the behavior of the police - a punishment that those women who dare to stand up to the men in blue are inflicted with - is too sanitized, and too much in good taste.
Eastwood is a lover of the slow pans and fluid camera movements. The period detail is exact and even as the lonesome soundtrack - string arrangements in a mournful tempo - play over the scenes, you know that this is a Clint Eastwood movie.
Jolie is good in the opening scenes, but the whole artifice of this, one of the most famous women in the world, being a mother in peril in the 1920s, falls apart towards the end, especially in a shot where she turns back and gives what is meant to be “I am brave, I will carry on” smile at a helpful detective, but ends up being one of the most self aware and false notes in what would have been an adequate performance. Her impeccably carmined mouth and coy looks from under the face flattering cloche hat doesn’t serve the performance either.
It is impossible not to see this movie and wish that Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) or Michael Mann (Collateral, Public Enemies) had directed it instead. The authenticity, the grime and the dirt of a corrupt world are missing in Eastwood’s version of the story. And The Changeling suffers as a result.