A Film By Antonio Campos
Genre: Drama • Year: 2016 • Country: USA • Running Time: 119 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Image: Colour • Language: English
One of two identically themed films playing the festival circuit this year – alongside Robert Greene’s documentary feature Kate Plays Christine – director Antonio Campos’ unglamorous and utterly tragic drama is a stark and often hypnotising character study of television news journalist Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide during a live television broadcast on 15 July 1974, at the age of just 29.
Already a firm favourite for nomination contention come awards season, Rebecca Hall unsurprisingly turns in a career best performances as the eponymous newscaster.
Stilted and rather distant, Christine does come across as a rather difficult and almost impenetrable character – particularly during frequent work quarrels and hard-hitting arguments with her mother – however the fact that Campos and Hall are able to draw out feelings of warmth, sympathy and empathy towards an outwardly cold figure says a great deal about the skill of his direction and the quality of her perfomance.
Through intricate scrutiny of her smallest gestures and delivery techniques, analysis of close up footage and doc interviews in an empty studio, Hall’s Christine is an obsessive perfectionist, relentlessly tearing herself apart and untrusting of the assurance from those around her.
Interestingly Christine’s professional/studio vocal delivery is notably more mechanical and forced that her natural off-camera speaking voice, again further indicating the fact that she has formed herself into an almost artificial creation, desperately striving for perfection in a male dominated environment, though sadly never quite able to synchronise.
When her boss fiercely labels her a feminist she immediately counters the fact she isn’t fit to tackle bigger markets because she’s a woman. She believes passionately in tackling serious issues of concern in the local community, but struggles to deliver the exploitative journalism her boss demands as it is totally at odds with the work she has been doing thus far.
It soon becomes clear that Christine simply does not have the natural charisma and televisual appeal required for the job she desires, though once we learn that her sedate disposition derives from her inability to interact with family, friends and colleagues it becomes all the more moving when we consider what is to come.
Some of the most effective scenes are when the action moves away from the professional environment and hones in on the more intimate aspects of her life.
Christine devotes her spare time to giving puppet shows to sick children at the paediatric hospital and spending time her mother Peg at their small, shared apartment.
Her relationship with her mother is a strange one. Though her mother is her only true friend their conversations are fraught and tense. Interestingly Christine mostly calls her mother Peg, though defaults back to Mom in softer moments of confusion and isolation. Peg loves Christine deeply and only has her interests at heart, but she is never quite sure how to talk to her daughter, nervously traversing sensitive territory and linking her present state to a previous incident that saw he relocate from her old life in Boston.
During one of the aforementioned puppet shows Christine discusses the themes of friendship and being liked. “I thought people were supposed to like me for who I am; that it’s on the inside that counts?” she states in the distorted voice of one of her characters. “They are” she answers in her natural voice, “but you have to show them who you are … you do it with your actions … you act bravely … and boldly”.
It is in these moments that we get subtle glimpses of her innermost thoughts and feelings, significantly hinting at the deep satisfaction and chilling suicidal tendencies that lie just beneath the surface.
Screenwriter Craig Shilowich refreshingly avoids the well-trodden cliches of mental illness and depression in a compelling series of increasingly distressing events closely examining the intricacies of human emotion and interaction.
Christine’s emotional pain is later intensified by the physical pain of an ovarian cyst which the doctor informs her could create complications should she wish to conceive in the future.
Though it could afford to be explored in greater depth, Christine’s unrequited love for Michael C. Hall’s charming co-anchor George is nicely explored, as is her relationship with college Jean Read (Maria Dizzia), a much needed friend and ear if only Christine would drop her barriers and let Jean into her life.
Although we have just under two hours to prepare for the heartbreaking conclusion we all know is coming, Campos handles the material with such respect and sensitivity that it nevertheless proves a devastating and superbly composed portrait of a woman on the verge.
Aside from Michael C. Hall and Maria Dizzia, there are other standout supporting performances from Tracey Letts, J. Smith-Cameron and John Callum, but this really is the Rebecca Hall show and she is in outstanding form.
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