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Knight at the Movies: A Mighty Heart, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2007-06-20

This article shared 3827 times since Wed Jun 20, 2007
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Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart. Timothy Spall in Pierrepoint.

_________

The kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 have to make up one of the most gut-wrenching examples of reporters who have put themselves in harm's way only to end up the story themselves. A Mighty Heart—the book written by Pearl's widow, Mariane, that relays the events surrounding this tragedy—is gripping, forthright and unsentimental ( which is not surprising, given Mariane Pearl's own credentials as a foreign correspondent ) . Now comes a movie that welds those emotions to the potent star quality of Angelina Jolie in the leading part. The result is a compelling film that's like watching a particularly grand Bette Davis performance without the grandstanding melodramatics.

A Mighty Heart also finally confirms what the tabloids and a series of okay-but-not-particularly-memorable leading roles have told us is true: Jolie is a thrilling screen presence. From the moment she broke through playing bisexual model Gia in the movie of the same name, we knew the gorgeous Jolie could act and, with the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movies, that she had the presence needed for big-budget action pictures. But she's never really carried a movie alone until now. With this movie she becomes a full-fledged movie star—one of those old-fashioned, mysterious megawatt movie stars they don't make very often these days.

Jolie is in nearly every scene of A Mighty Heart and, like Helen Mirren in The Queen, only lets the intensity of her emotions out in either small irritable outbursts or in private. When the sobs of despair finally do come in great torrents of grief, they are all the more heartbreaking to witness because of the momentary loss of her iron control.

On Jan. 23, 2002, while in Karachi, Pakistan, Daniel Pearl ( played by Dan Futterman ) disappeared while trying to meet an alleged terrorist leader. World attention focused on the story when news of his kidnapping became public. Public pleas from Pearl's editor ( played in the film by out actor Denis O'Hare ) and Mariane ( who was pregnant with the couple's first child ) to the kidnappers were ignored and, nine days after being captured, Pearl was brutally beheaded in a videotape that was later leaked to the Internet.

Director Michael Winterbottom's film methodically goes through these events beginning with the last day the Pearls shared. We see the contrast of the peaceful oasis of the gated house where the couple stayed with the cacophony and swarm of poverty-stricken Karachi just outside those gates. We intuit that this was a smart, careful couple long used to carving out personal sanctuaries in the midst of dangerous places, so it's no surprise that Mariane isn't particularly worried at first that Daniel doesn't respond to her repeated attempts to phone him on her cell phone after he has failed to return home. As the movie progresses, that cell phone—with its tiny light shining in the darkness of the Pearl's bedroom—becomes a private beacon of hope as Mariane presses 'send' over and over again just to hear Daniel's outgoing message on voice mail.

These quiet moments—a housekeeper's child silently playing underfoot while bureaucrats swirl around overhead; Mariane stepping out into the courtyard of the house to catch her breath after a setback; a worried glance between two friends of the couple's as some disquieting news is revealed—provide an elegiac respite from the rest of the nuts-and-bolts story which shows us the 'civilized' media, embassy and CIA figures surrounding Mariane and the concurrent, intense investigation by the Pakistani authorities. The detailed intricacies of all these agencies working together—the simple act of being able to provide enough electricity to power the computers needed for the job—add much to the authoritative feel of the movie.

Always, the workmanlike pace is elevated by Jolie's enigmatic presence ( and is aided by the complicated accent she adopts ) . She is greatly supported by an international cast that includes Futterman ( who is seen throughout in haunting flashbacks ) ; O'Hare as the boss; Archie Panjabi as a close friend and fellow reporter; and, especially, Irfan Kahn as the taciturn police captain determined to find Daniel before it is too late.

Jolie has wisely chosen a film role that not only elevates her own star wattage but that is also far from the standard female movie-star part. Mariane is no insecure bimbo; terrified wife; or love-starved but lovable kook, and she's no helpless victim, either. The gossip rags will continue to eat up every move that the actress makes, given her real-life match-up with fellow beauty Brad Pitt. But from here on out, the attention, at least with regard to her work, is certainly understandable—and warranted.

British character actor Timothy Spall is best recognized by film audiences for his character roles, particularly as Wormtail in the Harry Potter series. But he's gotten the chance to essay a starring part in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, the off-putting story of the infamous man known as England's last hangman. Albert Pierrepoint followed in the footsteps of his father and was particularly prolific as his tenure as England's bringer of death occurred before, during and after World War II—when a huge crop of war criminals were hung.

Adrian Shergold's dark, unsettling film shows us a man who is so expert at his work that he practically sings when he is complimented on the speed with which he brings death to those judged guilty. Even his wife, expertly played by Juliet Stevenson, is proud of her Albert. But as the years pass and the bodies pile up, Pierrepoint, not surprisingly, begins to feel deep conflicts about his strange and distasteful specialty. Spall brings a quiet dignity to the role and suggests a sense of duty and pride in his work; in addition, he is equally fine in latter sections of the movie and displays a face that is wracked with torment over what he has done. Apart from its repugnant subject matter ( and, yes, we see numerous hangings ) and within the confines of its small story, Pierrepoint is a well-done character study of a man who, on the face of it, spent a lifetime leaping before he bothered to look.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . People can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also find ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.


This article shared 3827 times since Wed Jun 20, 2007
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