Green Book Review
Are we looking at the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor here?
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen put on an acting masterclass in this heart-warming tale of an unlikely friendship forged on a journey through the Deep South.With a nicely balanced mix of belly laugh-inducing comedy and nuanced portrayals of America’s racial inequality, Green Book is charming, helmed by two exceptional performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
It’s 1962, and acclaimed pianist Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is about to embark on a musical tour of the Deep South. He knows he – an African American – is likely to encounter at least a little trouble en route, so he’s in the market for a driver who can “take care” of business. That’s where Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) comes in – he’s a gruff Italian looking for work and packs more than the necessary punch. The trouble is, he’s a little rough around the edges, as demonstrated by some decidedly less-than-PC behaviour at the film’s outset.
The duo set off on tour, with two intensely opposite personalities and apparently clashing worldviews. It’s not a spoiler to say that, as in all good roadtrip movies, there’s a lot of bonding, overcoming adversity and unlikely teachable moments, but there are also some genuinely funny moments alongside a bleak depiction of what it was to travel as an African American.
An equal parts light and poignant approach to a film guaranteed to score big during awards season
The film takes its name from the book Tony takes with him as they embark on their roadtrip. The Green Book was a manual for ‘travelling while black’, listing the hotels, motels and restaurants that were safe for black Americans to visit. As they travel across the Deep South, Shirley and Tony encounter obstacle after obstacle as they visit a slew of southern cities and states to showcase Shirley’s astonishing musical talent.
Director Peter Farrelly is best-known for slapstick comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, and here takes an equal parts light and poignant approach to a film guaranteed to score big during awards season.
The film’s straightforward narrative belies the serious, important and political message underlying the story – this is about the abhorrent treatment of black Americans and the acceptable racism so prevalent in society at this time.
Given that the script was penned by Tony’s son Nick Vallelonga (along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie), it’s almost inevitable that whatever roughness we see of Tony in the film’s opening scenes soon gives way to a heart-of-gold, relatable and winningly funny hero; that said, nothing should take away from Mortensen’s performance, which balances almost pantomime Italian-Americanisms with subtle touches for a wonderfully charming display.
The film, however, belongs to Ali (recently impressing in True Detective Season 3 too). He’s absolutely superb as Shirley – this is an expert performance from a truly exceptional actor. His Shirley is by turns amused, a genius, tortured, inebriated, forlorn, despairing, angry and determined – each perfectly portrayed through a subtle facial expression or particular stance. Watching Ali in Green Book is watching a master at work.
The script certainly lays it on thick, but does a good job of interweaving humour and heartwarming bromance scenes with some upsetting depictions of racism and violence awaiting the talented Shirley in the Deep South.
Watching Ali in Green Book is watching a master at work
The depiction of the unlikely friendship isn’t without its problems (if you’re keen to cling on to the uplifting feeling you get by the end of the film, don’t google the controversy regarding Shirley’s relatives and the filmmakers), but it makes for a good watch. Compelling performances from the two leads make up for the rather by-the-book narrative twists and turns, turning what is often a formulaic ‘coming of age’ film for adults into a pleasant and pleasingly worldly tale of acceptance, identity and change.
It’s a somewhat simplistic rendering of the racial issues that plagued America in the 60s and continue to this day – perhaps owing to Shirley’s dignity, calm and self-control when confronted with racism, there’s not an overflow of anger and violence in the film, which allows it to meander along like Tony and Shirley’s roadtrip, but also prevent it from straying very far from safe ground; it doesn’t really delve into the deap-seated issues of institutionalised or societal prejudices, for example. Ultimately, it’s a well-meaning and profoundly moving film that’s elevated from forgettable schmaltz to entertaining and watchable by two masterful performances.
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