Thursday, February 14, 2013

Some really good child actors

I’ve been on a quest to watch some of the movies I’ve missed out on during the past five years or so, and the deep dark winter months are the perfect times to catch up on my film watching. Sometimes the reason I haven’t seen the films is because I haven’t been able to get to the theater to watch them when they’ve opened; other times I’m quite sure they haven’t opened in Norway at all, even though IMDB states that they opened in Norway on this or that date. They may have gone directly to DVD, if that can qualify as an opening in Norway. In any case, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by three films that have caught my attention, made me cry, made me think, and ultimately made me happy that I saw them. They are Genova (2008), Creation (2009), and Hugo (2011). What they all have in common are wonderfully good child actors; especially in Genova, but closely followed by Creation and Hugo.

If you haven’t seen any of the films, I can briefly summarize them here. Genova is the story of a Joe, a husband and father whose wife has died in a car accident that may have been caused by their youngest daughter who was sitting in the backseat of the car together with her older sister, playing a game. The husband decides to move his daughters and himself to Genova, Italy for a short while; the film relates their daily lives in a new and strange city, and the adventures each of them embark upon. Colin Firth as Joe, and Willa Holland as Kelly (the eldest sister) are very good, but it is the youngest daughter Mary, played by Perla Haney-Jardine, who shone in this film. Her acting is superb; there were times when you just wanted to reach out and hug her, she was so good, especially when her awkwardness and loneliness shone through. In real life, she is about sixteen years old now; when the film came out, she was about eleven. She had a remarkable self-possession at that young age that was riveting. Composed, observant, guarded, smart as a whip, but full of feelings and thoughts that she did not really understand or know how to express at that age; the scene where she talks to a female friend of her father’s and tells her that she feels guilty and responsible for her mother’s death is heartbreaking. Her wonderful self-possession reminded me of my niece when she was that age; she had (and still has) many of those same qualities.

Creation is the story of Charles Darwin and his family, at the time before he wrote the book that would make him famous, The Origin of Species. The film details his struggle to acknowledge the scientific truths about evolution that he has discovered which put him into conflict with his Christian faith and with his wife, who is very religious. Charles Darwin and his wife Emma are played by Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, who are married in real-life; they are terrific together. Darwin’s life was complicated by poor health and much unhappiness; he lost his eldest and beloved daughter Annie, played so convincingly and movingly in the film by Martha West, most probably to tuberculosis. Their relationship was close on many levels, and she was clearly his favorite child, likely because she was so interested in his work and in the natural world. Had she lived, she could have become a scientist like her father. The film depicts the conflicts in the Darwin marriage as well as the events surrounding the death of Annie, and is based on the book Annie’s Box: Charles Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution, by Randal Keynes. So much of the film revolves around Annie and the impact her death had on Charles Darwin; Martha West did a wonderful job as Annie. It was impossible not to be moved to tears by her performance. The same can be said for Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.

Hugo is the third film where a child figures prominently in the story; it reminded me a bit of the film Oliver! (1968). The young boy Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, has a wistful look to him, much like Mark Lester’s Oliver in that earlier film, and his performance is very nuanced and very good. Both of them play young boys who are orphans; Oliver lives in an orphanage, whereas Hugo lives in the walls of a Paris train station where he fixes and maintains the station’s clocks, a job he learned from his drunken uncle who disappeared months ago and who is discovered drowned in the Seine river. The film is the story of how Hugo slowly befriends an older man who knows that Hugo steals from him, a shopkeeper by the name of Georges Méliès', played by Ben Kingsley. Georges works in the train station selling and repairing trinkets and small toys; Hugo steals parts from him sporadically in order to repair the ‘automaton’ he and his father were working on before his father’s tragic death. But Georges was once a promising filmmaker, before WWI destroyed those plans and ambitions, turning him into an unhappy and bitter man. As fate would have it, this automaton was actually designed by Georges Méliès' when he was a young man. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that the film is based on the real-life story of Georges Méliès', a French filmmaker who was way ahead of his time in terms of special effects and surreal sets and props, and a magician as well. He is known especially for two films, A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904).

It is not possible to predict what the future will hold for Perla Haney-Jardine, Martha West, or Asa Butterfield in terms of their future film successes, as child actors often have a hard time repeating the successes of their youth. But they certainly deserve many more chances to express their tremendous talents and to shine as brightly as they did respectively in each of these films.

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