All the King’s Men

In 1950s Louisiana, door-to-door brush salesman and parish treasurer Willie Stark (Sean Penn) runs for Governor, under the eye of local politician Duffy (James Gandolfini). A local reporter (Jude Law) takes a personal interest in him, and ends up working for/with Stark, much to the disapproval of his stepfather (Anthony Hopkins) and his childhood companions (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo).
It’s hard not to get excited with a cast that deep (as well as the likes of Kevin Dunn, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson and Glenn Morshower), under the direction of Steve Zaillian (writer for, amongst others, Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Mission Impossible, Moneyball and David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), in a film based on the winner of three Oscars in 1949, including Best Picture, and four more nominations, including Best Screenplay. However, as I discussed in a recent list, not all remakes are very good, and as it happens this one is downright terrible. And not just in the sense that it’s disappointing when compared to what those involved could have achieved, it’s terrible when compared to most other films that exist.

You see, the initial paragraph that began this review, the one where the plot of the film was outlined, was adapted from a paragraph I had to look up on Wikipedia. This is due to the plot of the film being almost entirely incomprehensible, and organised in a manner that only exacerbates this situation. To start with, the accents of North America’s deep south are fairly unintelligible to my English ears, and I’m not ashamed to say that at one point I switched on the subtitles, just to try and ascertain what the heck was going on. In fact, the notes I took whilst watching were peppered with more question marks than for any other film.

There is practically no character depth on screen either. Everyone is playing a broad cartoon, especially the oily Gandolfini, although Penn gives him a run for his money. It is very clear that Penn was aiming for a Best Actor Oscar, in much the same way Broderick Crawford received one in the original, but alas he overshot the mark. Penn has always been a great actor, right back to Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but the problem here is his character is almost aggressively unlikeable, even when delivering inspiring, rousing speeched, with his arms gesticulating wildly, like a marionette caught in a ceiling fan. Anthony Hopkins is reduced to doddering around underneath a horrendous hair-do, given the film’s moral compass and a hobby of assembling miniature catapults, and everyone else is given almost nothing to do. Even Jude Law, the lead, is bland and left little impact, and Kate Winslet was distracting, but only because the golden colour of her hair really didn’t suit her otherwise pale complexion.

The one good aspect of the film was the cinematography. The whole film looks amazing, but it’s almost too perfect at times, especially when Winslet enters a room or sits down, as the way she is lit has always been analysed far beyond how natural lighting has any right to work. She always seems to find the exact position where the light will bounce from her hair in the most effective manner, as though she’s just descended from heaven, rather than a dusty back office. The final scene was especially impressive in terms of visual flare, almost entirely illuminated by photographer’s flashes, and it would have left the film on a stunning high note, had I only had some inkling as to the motivations behind each character and why they were acting in such a way. 

That was my main problem with the film – there seems to have been no effort spent in attempting to convey what is going on onscreen to the audience, resulting in a jumbled mess of unlikeable characters doing things we’re fairly sure are unsavoury, but for unknown reasons. Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo are briefly introduced on a beach with Jude Law in a gold-tinted flashback approximately fifteen minutes into the story, but there’s no details as to who they are and nothing really happens to them at that time, but after that short scene they aren’t brought back to the film for a good 45 minutes! What makes this worse is Winslet’s involvement becomes the main focus of the second half of this disoriented hash of a film, and Ruffalo is integral to the climax, yet at no point did I feel I had a grasp on exactly who they were i relation to anyone else, other than each other.

In terms of the Kate Winslet films I’d heard of but hadn’t seen before embarking on this journey through her career, this is a definite low point, and one that I cannot recommend for anything other than playing with the sound off, and just looking at the pretty images.

Choose life 3/10

4 thoughts on “All the King’s Men

  1. I just watched the original version of this, which won Best Picture in 1949. The plot is evidently a lot easier to understand in the original version, because I had no trouble at all following along. It's a worthwhile picture. Sounds like the remake was a much better idea than execution.

  2. I'll have to check out the original, thanks for the recommendation. Now that I've read what the plot was supposed to have been, a re-watch of this one would probably make it more cohesive, but I just can't bring myself to waste that kind of time.

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