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FilmSoc Reviews: Green Book

Posted by FilmSoc on Tue, 19-02-2019

by Kieran O'Brien

Green Book tells the story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and his racially insensitive driver/bodyguard, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), during Shirley’s tour of the Deep South in 1962. It’s an intriguing premise, made even more so by the fact that it’s based on real events. Thankfully, the film remains engaging right up to the end.

This film is charming and quite often hilarious. Most of the humour comes from Mortenson’s Italien-American character, Tony Vallelonga, a.k.a Tony Lip, so called due to his purported abilities to talk people into doing whatever he wants. The moniker is only somewhat deserving though, thanks to Tony’s propensity towards violence, something Ali’s character, the sage and composed genius Don Shirley, abhors. These people are opposites in so many ways, and it’s great fun watching the two bounce off each other. Their friendship and conflicts are what makes Green Book so enjoyable. Their performances are perfect, too. There isn’t a trace of Mortensen anywhere in his performance. He absolutely sinks into the role. Same with Ali. Watching his extravagant yet pained performance is great entertainment, especially in contrast to his current role in HBO’s True Detective which is muted, and powerful in a completely different way.

Something that particularly impressed me about Green Book was Tony and his family’s frequent bouts of Italien, subtitled, of course. It’s joyous to watch. In a world where filmmakers normally make people from all countries speak in accented English instead of their native tongue, this was a refreshing change. What’s better is that they didn’t have to do it at all; nobody would’ve called out the filmmakers for having the Italien-Americans speak English, but the fact that they went the extra mile adds to the film’s authenticity.

Green Book does a great job of portraying race relations in the Deep South pre-Civil Rights Act without relying on violence. Sure, there’s one bar scene that fits the stereotypical  ‘we-don't-like-your-kind’ bill, but we’re mostly shown the many degrading ways Shipley is treated socially. The fact that he suffers these injustices with such dignity adds a compelling layer to his character. It is, however, one of the few compelling things about him. Shipley is likeable, sure, but we never experience his true depth. We hear about his distant brother and his rejection from the black community, but don’t see these things depicted dramatically on-screen. In fact, the whole reason for his tour of the south is told to us by a minor tertiary character. It’s a moment that would have been so much better coming from Shirley himself. Alas, this isn’t the story of Shirley’s trouble in the Deep South.

It’s really Tony’s story. He offers an interesting perspective on the whole thing, and as I said, Viggo Mortensen’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Tony is endearing in his love for his wife. Tony is unintentionally funny, yet sensitive when it’s called for. Tony offers us some of the film’s best fist-pump-the-air, cheer-at-the-screen moments. He’s also a racist. Or, well, he kinda is. This is what I’m going to fault the film hardest on, but to do it properly, I need to talk about moments in two scenes. They’re both in the first ten minutes of the film, so it’s relatively spoiler-free. Here goes:

Tony comes home and finds two black men doing some construction in his house. His delightful wife, Dolorous (played by Linda Cardellini whom someone needs to start giving leading roles; she’s a gem) pours them each a glass of lemonade. Seeing this, Tony throws these glasses into a bin after the men leave. It’s a clear and unsettling moment for Tony’s character, but mere minutes later, he shakes Don Shirley’s hand without any hesitation or revulsion. For the rest of the film, Tony is the stereotyping, generalising, ‘I-don’t-mean-no-harm-by-it’ kind of racist, a stark contrast to his earlier, much more hostile prejudice. Green Book draws its line, then plays so in-bounds that there’s never a risk of a foul. Given this and it’s slightly saccharine ending, Green Book plays things very safe.

That said, the film is still worth watching. There’s a lot to love here. The film does have its poignant moments and the fact that everything around these moments manages to be enjoyable character-driven comedy/drama is very impressive. Catch this before it leaves the cinema and you’re sure to have a good time.

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