Film Review: Birdman

It’s the time of year when franchise films take a back seat and the resultant screen time gets filled with movies held back, determined to stay in the memory of those potentially influential voters, as the race for the awards on offer heats up. Some call it silly season, others declare it an annual golden month of cinema. For me, I fall somewhere between the two, but slightly tinted with gold.

And to kick start 2015, one such offering is Birdman (or the return of Michael Keaton). A film, put simply, about an actor, who built a reputation as a superhero before disappearing into the fog of obscurity, now returning for a potential big break. And it’s unsurprising that with a plot that has such parallel echoes to Keaton’s own career that the comparison between the two is regularly made. But note this, if you read that synopsis and base your decision to see this film on it, you’ll be in for a shock!

Michael Keaton - Birdman

The film that people seem to expect, based around that echo, is to look at Birdman over simplistically and while technically correct completely misses the narrative that lies at it’s heart. This film is not about superheroes. It is about so, so much more than that and I found it’s fascinatingly subtle and engrossing as a result. But I may be in the minority, because judging by the young man sitting to my right, who spent more time on his phone than watching the film, I think he was expecting to see an action movie about a feathered crusader and not a cerebral personification of schizophrenia.

Add to the mental health descriptor a story of interpersonal relationship, which are both then cleverly tied into a debate about film, theatre, criticism and the whole “stage versus screen actors” cross over and you begin to get an understanding as to the true tale its intending to tell. And while it may sound like a lot to take in, it’s handled with such care and cleverness that I can honestly see why this film is getting as much praise as it is.

Once you’ve accepted what this film is really about, and that it’s not a silly comedy, there is a real meaty heart that just goes from strength to strength with the performances of, firstly Michael Keaton in its leading role. Who effortlessly manages to drag you inside his mind and really bring the emotional turmoil, suffering and pain he feels to life. However, while the performance is good and believable, I’m struggling to think of a better single showing in the last 12 months from an Oscar point of view, I just feel it is still a level below the height Matthew McConaughey and his transformative role in Dallas Buyers Club hit last year.

Edward Norton though, really stole the show for me. His character is more a personified composite of the narrative themes unpinning the film than a standalone individual but he brings every one of those themes to life in such a way that he provides the perfect foundation for Keaton to bounce off. His performance acting as the perfect safety net to allow Keaton the room to really let go and run with it. While it is very much Keaton’s film, it wouldn’t be anything life as good with Norton in it.

Emmanuel Lubezki - Birdman

Mention must also be made of Emmanuel Lubezki, who as cinematographer (he also shot Gravity) manages to recreate the film in an apparent single take. Every scene flowing naturally into the next without break or cut. A fitting tribute to its predominantly theatre based setting. And while it’s a clever trick, at times the artificial blending used to create the illusion felt a little clunky. You don’t notice the join but you can sense something isn’t right. And that’s such a shame, because the style really does add something to the film, it just needed that few more moments of polishing to really make it shine.

However, while there are huge amounts to like in this film, there are some problems. Emma Stone puts in a performance that is never stretching and looks perfect. She is the “recovered drug addict lay about daughter” and her usual pale skin, wispy hair and general demeanour create the perfect image but I think the fact she fits the look so well is such a sad reflection on how society stereotypes wha t a “rehab junkie” looks like. My biggest ccriticism and overriding destructive force in the film is the titular Birdman character. There is such a beauty and grace to the maturity of this film, even though it deals with dark and depressive topics at time, that when the feathered friend arrives he just lowers the tone and somehow brings a level of immaturity and stupidity to the story that doesn’t feel needed or necessary. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that for me, this film is going to live in my memory for how Birdman destroyed it rather that it’s actual narrative strengths. Truly, I believe you could easily get away without him and have a much, much better film.

Edward Norton & Emma Stone - Birdman

Also, I truly dislike the ending, but to forgo the risk of spoilers, I shall now move on.

I came into Birdman, not really understanding what it was. I had caught the trailer at a previous cinema outing and if I’m honest, not really been sold on it as a film. It seemed strange and confused. But having now seen it, I’m glad I did. Because it’s so far removed and so totally different from my initial expectations, and such a more powerful, grown up film than any preconceived idea I could have placed on it, I have ended up having a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Go and see it, but be warned, it’s not a story about superheroes, it’s far more interesting than that.

8 out of 10 stars (8 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

Comments are closed.