If you had placed an early bet on a silent black and white film winning 5 Oscars, including Best Film, Director and Male actor in 2012, your odds would have been favourable indeed.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a black and white silent film mega-star, drawing easy parallels with real life Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Looked after by his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell), constant canine companion “Uggie” and paternalistic archetypal cigar chomping, braces wearing, Studio Boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) .
Times are good, despite his chilly marriage to long suffering Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Audiences idolise their star and nothing needs to change but unknown to George, “times are a changing”, whether he likes them or not.
Literally stumbling into the path of Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) at a première, he is kissed on the cheek and the subsequent clamour of “Who’s that girl”, encourages Peppy to apply as a dancer on his next movie.
Peppy has something, which is quickly realized by the established and smitten star and he supports her early career. In the meantime, “Talkies” are coming and George fails to realise the significance and impact this will have on his career and standing.
The two actors careers then briefly intersect, before following widely divergent paths similar to a “Star is Born”. Fundamentally one upwards and one ever downwards.
The story and character arc is well known, classic rags to riches and riches to rags and will be familiar to many. What of course sets this apart is there is no dialogue or sound effects, apart from one notable and very effective sequence.
Can a modern audience follow such a story with no sound, dialogue and minimal story boarding. A definite yes but it does take some getting used to. The first twenty minutes may be difficult for a modern audience to accept and assimilate. However, once you realize moving pictures is all you have and the story starts to coalesce, the film is engrossing, well acted and easy to follow.
Director Michael Hazanavicius has managed to craft a witty, engaging and ultimately moving picture which represents a loving homage to cinema of long ago. Managing to make it accessible to most audiences, brought up on a diet of CGI, violence and spectacle is an achievement of note.
Frenchman, Dujardin manages to capture the almost theatrical poses and acting style of the era and yet employs a very naturalistic acting style the moment the film within a film, stops rolling. As his world is turned upside down he manages to convey the inner turmoil and frustration without the usual channel of expression, sound and dialogue. He is ably assisted by Bejo, (Oscar nominated) clearly a star in the making.
Whether the film is for everyone is debatable, some of course will dismiss out of hand. Many movie goers will not watch films with subtitles. A film with no sound or colour may be a stretch too far for some. Which is a shame, as the film is worth watching, proving beyond doubt that if the acting is good and the story strong, how it is interpreted is largely irrelevant.
Oscars, well such awards will also always be subject to debate, Dujardin is a worthy contender and clearly the Academy will reward any film that honours the golden age of cinema in such a way. Which moves into a debate about “Art” versus ordinary audience appreciation, for which we have no space here.
An interesting and rewarding experience, if you allow the story to be absorbed.
Once you realise this is all the input there is, there are rich rewards to be had. Not for everyone but recommended for those that are prepared to enjoy something quite different.