Wednesday, 1 April 2009

A Glass Of Watered Down Milk

Howdy folks, Jolene here again, this time with a spoiler free review of Milk.

On arriving to see Milk I was in two minds about what to expect and upon leaving I realise that the 2 hour run time still hasn't been enough for me to coherently organise my thoughts.

Some hours have passed since I left The Courtyard, and yet, here I sit, still slightly puzzled about whether or not the film was a success. On the one hand the story is compelling, the performances outstanding (though in my opinion it is relative newcomer Emile Hirsch, not Sean Penn who is the best of the bunch) and the message undeniably important. However, when one watches Milk as a piece of narative cinema, I am afraid to say that it just doesn't work.

Throughout the first hour of the film I found myself feeling virtually abandoned by both script writer and director alike. The narrative rockets along at break neck speed, so much so that in the space of the opening 10 minutes, Harvey has already met his lover, opened a shop and decided to go into politics. The emphasis seems to be upon setting up his political career and ideals as an early plot hook, a way of convincing us to love the character because of what he stands for, but it's done so at the expense of convincing us to love him for who he is. However much one may naturally sympathise with Milk the idea, this disregard of characterisation so early in the film leaves very little room for any empathy with Milk the man. Rather my sympathy lies with anybody unfortunate enough to choose these early scenes for a bathroom break, blink before the first 40 minutes and you are in danger of missing half of Milk's career.

However, it's not just the narrative that has problems, the visual style too seems intent upon disturbing any sort of connection you may feel with the film, it's characters, or it's story. I am thinking in particular of the puzzling choice to splice in historical footage from the real campaign. The effect is jarring to say the least, just as one begins to settle down into the accepted artifice of a Hollywood film, you are suddenly confronted with grainy, flickering footage of real events, yanking you out of the story and reminding you quite forcefully that you are in a cinema, watching a film. It is an effect which does not just break the fourth wall, it kicks it down and batters you to death with the bricks.

Which is a shame considering that once the first awkward hour is out of the way, the second half of the film is really rather good. It features some beautiful cinematography and, (an hour too late mind) finally gives you some insight into the nature of Harvey Milk himself. However, it still suffers from the schizophrenic vibe that haunts the first half, desperately asking us to believe in Penn as Milk whilst simultaneously reminding us that he isn't. This is not helped by the disjointed way the film is narrated, one forgets that this is all a reading of Milk's own words only to be reminded again at seemingly random intervals, as and when the director chooses to throw us forward in time.

I don't mean to sound overly negative, as there were parts of the film which were incredibly enjoyable, but I cannot help but feel that Milk is something of a wasted opportunity. With the seeming reams of historical footage (arguably the most interesting part of the film) one gets the impression that, with the compelling story of Harvey himself, this could have been an outstanding documentary. Instead, Milk is a rather confused fiction, never quite engaging the audience with its characters, or giving enough context to make it truly arresting. Watching it left me hungry to find out more, something which a biopic really ought not to do.

I won't argue that Harvey Milk's story isn't one worth telling, I just think it's one worth telling well.

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