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Film Review: The Green Mile

Pity poor Frank Darabont. After making his debut as director with the modern classic 'The Shawshank Redemption', he was put in the unenviable position of having to follow such as auspicious and successful endeavor. Darabont seems to be a man who knows when he is on to a good thing. Not only does he once again adapt a novel by Stephen King, but also sets it in a prison. However, the films are markedly different in tone and content. 'The Green Mile' is an excellent melodrama, but one which will never attain the status of 'Shawshank'.

Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a warden in a death row facility nicknamed the 'green mile'. Whilst going through his worst ever urinary tract infection, he takes in a new inmate, the 6'5" John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan). Accused of murdering two girls, Coffey claims to be innocent. The film follows Edgecomb through three separate executions, each one more brutal then the last, as his suspicions about his new inmate's guilt increase. Coffey also begins to display some incredible powers.

Outwardly, this may seem like a fairly cliched film. Yet whilst the main fault of Darabont's last film was its reliance on old prison film conventions (shower rapes etc), this film eschews them for the most part, or at least puts a new spin on them. Darabont's screenplay is episodic, but rarely drags, and is to be commended for paying so much attention to character and acting. However, Darabont is a largely unimaginative director. He shoots scenes in a series of long cuts, concentrating on the actor's faces. This can give the film an almost stage bound appearance, as visual flourishes are few and far between.

The acting is exemplary. Hanks, an actor who excels in playing essentially decent men caught in difficult situations, gives the film its solid, emotional core. He is once again the 'Everyman'. An incredibly talented ensemble including David Morse, Doug Hutchison, James Cromwell and Gary Sinise surround Hanks with sincere, believable characters. Michael Jeter gives a delightfully eccentric performance as the demented inmate with a special mouse for a friend. But it is Michael Clarke Duncan as the gigantic miracle that is John Coffey who rises above the cast. A man of immense physical presence, married to the playful innocence of his eyes, Duncan gives an iconic performance. It's a shame that he happens to have such stiff competition in the Best Supporting Actor Category this year, or he would be a shoo-in.

The ending of the film is a masterwork in audience manipulation, as we gradually see the decision that Edgecomb is forced into to. The final half hour is emotionally devastating. Though it is 3 hours long, its pacing is almost perfect, unlike last week's 'The Talented Mr. Ripley'. The relationship between Edgecomb and Coffey is believably built up, whilst the surrounding sub-plots are never cast off, but allowed to proceed to satisfying denouements.

My main gripe about this film is that it never truly captures you. There is very little mystery in the film. We watch Edgecomb try to discover things we ourselves had already figured out. It might have been better if Darabont had allowed Coffey's guilt or innocence to be more ambiguous, as that would give better unify the movie's structure. We know almost from the start what Coffey is capable of, so it is hard not to shout out the obvious at the screen.

The film is also a heavily romanticised account of what death row must be like. Despite only having two or three prisoners at a time, all the inmates are made into cuddly eccentrics. We never glimpse the brutality or menace that must lurk beneath the surface. Indeed, the only real violence displayed is on the part of the guards. Even if you are against the death penalty in principle, you may find the saccharine and sanitised images on this film to be a little fanciful. The film also contains one of the most graphic and horrifying death sequences in modern cinema. If you are squeamish, you might want to bring a pillow to hide behind.

But taking all this into account, the 'The Green Mile' continues an incredible run of quality films that have descended on the box office since the New Year. Whilst it probably won't beat 'American Beauty' to the Oscar, it will delight audiences around the world. By the way, this film also gets my vote for 'Best Performance by an Animal in a Supporting Role'. See the film and find out why…

Ian O'Sullivan

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