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What kind of movie is Changeling? Most movies answer that question fairly quickly, cueing the audience's expectations. In the old days, true-life stories such as this one, about the disappearance of a nine year-old boy in Los Angeles, in 1928, were handled in an extremely formulaic way, the better to accommodate not so much the quirks of the real-life characters as the tics of the stars who played them. Had it been made by MGM in 1938, or 1948, the film would have forced the narrative into a certain mold. Christine Collins, even more desperate to find her son after the Los Angeles Police Department proudly presents her with another boy, would bring upon herself the ire of the establishment, and lose everything in her courageous struggle especially her promising job with the telephone company. Only when she has been completely isolated in a psychiatric ward would someone ride to her rescue. The movie would climax with a ringing vindication of her sanity. Then Walter would turn up for the happy ending.

Changeling is far more complex. It is true that we never doubt Christine's conviction that her son has not been returned to her. But we wonder about everybody else. Who is the boy, if not her son? Is the Police Department malignant? Does it incarcerate Christine in order to cover up some unspeakably base offense? Or is it merely incompetent? (Colm Feore and Jeffrey Donovan play officials as unlikable as Michael Kelly's detective is appealing.) Who is the Rev Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), the radio pastor who champions Christine's cause from the start and what's in it for him? And the scene that we just saw was that the climax? (This question comes up several times.) Why does the film keep going?

Not that we're irritated or impatient. Changeling never for an instant seems lost. Relying on an excellent screenplay by J Michael Straczynski, lightning-quick editing by Joel Cox and Gary Roach, the incandescent cinematic intelligence of Angelina Jolie, and, by no means least, an intriguing score by the director, Clint Eastwood, Changeling plows through time like a dreadnought, brightly aware of where it's going even when we aren't. We'd follow it anywhere.

At the end, we discover that Changeling is about the last spoken word, "hope." It is about many things along the way arrogant officials, civic crusaders, horrific "mental" wards and the crazy people who ought to be in them, and the still-pervasive respectability of the Twenties in Los Angeles in general but it is always about hope. When Christine smiles at the detective at the end and says, "Hope," we realize that we've known along that Changeling is about hope. It only threatens, every now and then, to be about impossible odds. The abyss that opens beneath Christine Collins when she disputes LAPD's determination is visible to plenty of concerned bystanders.

Mr Eastwood and his screenwriter are to be commended for making the most of the material at the other end of their story. Walter Collins's disappearance, it turns out, was connected to a string of depraved crimes that might easily have gone undetected. We're allowed to know just enough about this ghastliness to wish to know no more: it is never permitted to swamp the story of Christine Collins's hope. While the power and publicity of the City Council are brought to bear on the LAPD in a civic space of Byzantine grandeur, the sickening trial of a madman takes place in a sombre courtroom  nearby. The madman turns out to be as futile in death as he was sociopathic in life, but that is not the end of his story. The movie keeps going. Changeling is only partly interested in justice. It is wholly interested in something else, something that Mr Eastwood and Ms Jolie know how to give us without patting us on the head. (November 2008)

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