Monday, 15 September 2014

The Giver (2014) Film Review

Check it out... if you're tired of young-adult dystopian novel adaptations skimping only the surface on thoughtful and intuitive commentary on our own modern world, and desire something that is relatively intelligent and faithful to it's 1993 source material 

Skip it... if you are a faithful and guarded fan of the novel of which this is adapted from, and detest any and all changes made for the better of the translation to live action, which proves to be not particularly poor, but more so enjoyable

The Giver poster
"In a time and era where even half-decent young adult films are in sparse quantity, The Giver is... somewhat refreshing."

The Giver is a film directed by Phillip Noyce, and it stars Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Odeya Rush. It is an adaptation of the 1993 dystopian novel of the same name, written by Lois Lowry, which centres around a young boy named Jonas, whose idealistic and 'perfect' community is unearthed by himself as a sham, and a thoroughly immoral one at that. The film follows the same premise; that on Jonas' 12th (18th within the visual medium) birthday, the age at which occupations are assigned by the communities Elders (who seem to control nearly every aspect of these people's lives), he is assigned the task of Receiver of Memory, and finds that with his new found place, the world around him is not as wholesome and idyllic as one would be led to believe at first glance. 

As I made clear in the introduction to my review for Marco Beltrami's score to this very film, the cinematic adaptation of the 1993 novel The Giver is a film which I have not been anticipating by any stretch of the imagination. It's not just simply the fact that this is yet another young-adult adaptation that turns me off from the premise and idea, but more so all the little things I'd heard about the film leading up to it's release, as is an issue that plagues many a fan of any literature, feeling that every little inconsistency and fault in appearance of aesthetic presentation is slowly but surely squandering the undoubtable brilliance that lies within their favourite or loved book. I first read the book at the start of this very year, in preparation for this very term, in which we have been studying the publication for it's thematic intentions and underlying commentary, all of which allow for wonderful discussions within an educational environment. From my first read through, it was clear that this wasn't an insanely original premise, and the execution seemed sketchy and stilted, though perhaps that was part of the draw; it's imperfections seem to give the book a quality and character unlike many a dystopian novel. These imperfections could be accredited to the main protagonist of the novel, a 12 year old boy named Jonas, stuck in a community which promotes an attitude of naivety and submissiveness, whom we experience life within this novel through his eyes. The community Jonas belongs to continually presses any inquisitive behavior away, and so we are left with a main character who possess a great deal of innocence and credulity, who doesn't think to question anything around him. His misunderstanding of the world around him and it's history is something that is particularly entertaining though frustrating to witness from early on, though as he is cast into a role of great importance and individuality, he learns more about the world and begins to discover the importance of asking questions and doing more than just accepting the supposed truth he has been fed all his life. So whilst this kind of a novel has been attempted before, it's interesting to see it all through the eyes of a younger and far more submissive character, who we can relate and sympathize with on a far greater scale. 

I was disappointed with the fact that Noyce and his casting directors had decided against recruiting a younger actor who would better represent the age and level of maturity the book-Jonas possessed, though in retrospect, this is a rather faulty quarrel with the film; there are far too many child actors in Hollywood who would fail at being able to hold a scene with Jeff Bridges or Meryl Streep, all whilst delivering a relatable, innocent and emotional performance. So whilst the casting of Brenton Thwaites, aged 25, has undoubtedly stirred the anger of book purists, their arguments certainly do not translate for live action; as much as we would like to see our favorite literature characters be brought to life with as great an accuracy as possible, often, this is simply too difficult to do so without risking more than what could be gained, and in the context of the cinematic adaptation of The Giver, this is certainly the case. In regards to Thwaites, his performance is adequate, and at times, even exemplary. In comparison to male protagonists in other young-adult dystopian novel adaptations (funnily enough, that excessively long genre is one that is becoming more common place than one would like to see become the case) like Josh Hutcherson and Theo James, he ranks higher than one would imagine, first considering his prior acting experience, which isn't particularly impressive; 2012's Save Your Legs and this year's Maleficent are some of the films he has been reasonably high billed within. The Giver is by far his most accomplished role, and he strangely fits into the role of Jonas with ease, though not after a few bumps along the road; his first few minutes are stilted and awkward, to say the least. Though this was more down to the screenwriters than anything else; it seems nearly all the dialogue for some of the opening scenes seemed weirdly one dimensional and contrived. Perhaps this was the intention of the writers, Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, as the novel consistently implements the use of awkward dialogue between characters, so as to provide the feeling that social interaction is rare and often underused within this society. It works reasonably well within the confines of the literary context, though it's use in this live action format is simply embarrassing; though what makes this dialogue cringe-worthy is not necessarily the stilted portions, but more so the inconsistencies. The film consistently refers to the idea that certain emotions and feelings are disallowed within the community, though laughter and happiness are exhibited by all main characters within these first few minutes. Though this laughter and happiness, and even a joking attitude seem utterly genuine, however stilted, and this leads me to ask the question; what exactly are the emotions that are made unlawful? The film never makes these explicitly clear, and it will undoubtedly leave the viewer confused by the actions of the main characters, all throughout the first half an hour.

This first half an hour is certainly the most unbearable portion of the film, with certain events seeming to pass far too quickly; the pacing seems jumbled up, as much as the explanations of certain plot points are. We are thrown into Jonas' life, and before we know all too much about him, we are given the knowledge that he is to become the 'Receiver of Memory', a role which involves him absorbing the memories of the Earth as it was in the days of freedom, ambition and inquisition (i.e. now and just recently, relevant in proportion to the Earth's age), all from the mysterious and powerful 'Giver', a man played by Jeff Bridges. The Giver is the previous Receiver of Memory, whose real name is never disclosed to Jonas nor the audience. He's a man who is weighed down by his knowledge of the past and the atrocities committed in times gone by, though he fortunately gets to experience the wonder of colour and emotion throughout his lonely and undoubtedly quite boring life of solitude, unlike the rest of the society he belongs to. Jeff Bridges plays up this character perfectly, inhabiting the conflicted personality that is ever present during his scenes, full of pain and remorse. His past is filled with turmoil that we see unravel on the screen in unoriginal though ever-effective flashbacks, and through his past relationships and experiences, we see how they effect him in the present that the movie encompasses. The relationship between Jonas and The Giver is at first consistently stilted, with Jonas quickly having to adapt to the 'give zero shits' lifestyle that his mentor has inhabited for most of his life. This proves to be one of the more entertaining portions of the film, as we see the timid and submissive personality of Jonas; a personality carefully honed and constructed by the Elder's restrictions over an eighteen-year period, clash with the often overbearing and overly emotional temperament of The Giver, a man who has had many years to overcome the tribulations encountered after discovering freedom after so many years of continuous limitation. Their first encounter is awkward in the best way, though this is before the first transmission of memories the two individuals undertake occurs; whilst there are many a montage of basic images during these transmissions that indicate a lack of effort (for a few of these later scenes, the montages look as if an intern stitched together a generic cut of 'inspirational moments in human history', all from videos which he found in a quick search on Youtube), these first few instances of connection between the two are crafted to symbolize and foreshadow various portions of the film and it's ideology. These scenes also allow the connection between Jonas and The Giver to grow, on a far more personal level; Jonas is finally learning and understanding his capacity for individual exercises and thought, and the only person who can sympathize with this period of transition is The Giver, a man who has also undertaken this difficult process himself. It's a beautiful way of crafting the relationship between the two characters, and by the end of the film, they feel less like a working team, and more so friends, or even family. 

Whilst Thwaites grows in his ability to conduct and control a thoroughly emotional and pivotal scene at any given point throughout the film, his co-stars develop slower, or even not at all. Cameron Monaghan is involved in two incredibly important scenes in the latter half of the film, though his emotional dexterity is far behind that of Thwaites, and this can make for a uneven balance between characters. Despite my issues with Katie Holmes in general, I had hoped her performance would've been somewhat acceptable, though she provides little personality to her character; she plays the 'mother' of Jonas (I put mother in quotation marks due to the fact that she never conceived nor gave birth to Jonas), who is again overtly restrictive, which one could assume this being due to her occupation within the Department of Justice within the community. Whilst her character has little to do within the film, Holmes makes little use of her onscreen time, delivering her lines with everything expected of her. Her onscreen partner, Jonas' father, is played by Alexander Skarsgard, whom delivers a slightly more well-rounded performance, and his character is in fact a peculiar opposite to Jonas' mother; he's far more inquisitive than his partner, though yet still all the more naive and unsuspecting of the truth of what he is a part of. His character is far more interesting, and Skarsgard manages to evoke a much keener and more memorable personality out of what has been written down for him. So whilst not all these supporting actors fail in their respective roles, many simply can't compete with the likes of Streep, Bridges and Thwaites. 

I've neglected two more important characters in this story, up to this point; Meryl Streep's character, the chief Elder of the community, as well as the love interest of Jonas, Fiona, played by Odeya Rush. Streep is, as always, a strong point in a film which often struggles in relations to performances, and delivers a strong villain in the chief Elder. This villain is not one dimensional, fortunately, due to a number of reasons; her arguments for control and deceit are well founded in the fact that she believes humans are incapable of preventing jealousy and fighting between themselves, as well as the fact that she is not all seeing and all knowing. One of the great features of her character is that she is, like the citizens she rules over, unknowing of the beauty of colour and emotion, and therefore relies on The Giver to provide council in regards to events that have happened in the past that may effect events happening in the film's present. Often films and literature neglect those who help or aid in the villain's desires or conquest, and present the villain as a lone powerful being, though here it is made blatantly clear that the chief Elder is not wholly evil and all encompassing of what makes the community such a poor lifestyle; she simply wants the best for her people. Streep's performance only adds to this level of genuine concern you see emanate from this character, and it makes you feel somewhat sympathetic towards her in certain parts of the film. Streep's casting also allows for some incredibly awesome moments of intense monologuing and debating between Bridges and herself, and if anything, this is what you should be most excited for coming into the theatre. Her chemistry with Bridges is astounding, and the climax of the film is highlighted primarily by their startlingly emotional and powerful back and forth dialogue. Whilst some of the credit should undoubtedly be awarded to the writers, it's these actors who make the dialogue really tick.

Jonas also has a love interest in the film, as is required of the male protagonist in a young-adult dystopian story. Whereas the book never really invested time into a supposed love interest or connection between Jonas and Fiona, the young girl who he is interested in, the film takes a relatively major portion of it's running time to elaborate and detail the romantic discoveries these two characters make. Again, book purists will take great issue with this change, and in any other young-adult adaptation, perhaps I would've too, though it seems to work in this specific context; the romance of the film seems to blend well with the theme of discovery that is so ever prominent throughout. So surprisingly, I found that this added portion of the plot seemed to work very well. This love story is one of the key components of the second half of the film that manage to undo a great portion of the first half's misgivings, though not all. Again, the often stilted and awkward dialogue, delivered poorly by various actors and actresses, really does lessen the impact of much of the social commentary, as does the majority of the limited use of CGI. Some of the pacing during the finale is also questionable, with the amount of time passing between scenes and certain shots simply not determinable. Though what holds the film together is it's final climatic tendencies, as well as the fantastic cinematography seen towards the end of the movie that delivers scope unseen throughout the rest of the running time. Whilst again, book purists may be outraged at the climatic rush of events hurtled at the audience member in the film's dying minutes, I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of said events, and how they were used in conjunction with each other. Whilst the book's ending is anti-climatic and non-conclusive, Noyce and the screenwriters took a far more dramatic approach, delivering the final climax with a greater emphasis on the idea that time is running out for Jonas and his friends (and due to a few logic flaws, perhaps this is the case). And yes, it appears I am a complete sucker for Hollywood's unneeded over-dramatization of an otherwise neutral situation, because I absolutely loved the ending to the film, and it's far more conclusive tone. It left me feeling satisfied, and in fact, due to primarily Beltrami's score, almost left me in tears; I was thoroughly drained on an emotional front. And this is strange, because there was a great portion of the film that felt lacking and dissatisfying, though two things reign this story in to be more than just a social commentary on how not to handle the balance between freedom and safety, these being Streep/Bridges/Thwaites performances and chemistry, all of which excel in their intentions and delivery, as well as the unusually effective climax, which had me invested in the individual character's plights and arguments. It seems like Bridges has again saved an otherwise conventional and uninventive story from treading too deep into generic teen-romance waters, and whilst not provoking the same kinds of questions and deep thematic-related discussions that the novel of which this is based off of intended upon sparking, this young-adult adaptation does remain true to form in a number of key and memorable ways. Book purists beware; you will undoubtedly hate this. For all others who perhaps haven't read the book, or aren't exceptionally dedicated fans, The Giver should suit your purposes just fine.


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