Thursday, 6 November 2014

To Kill A Mockingbird

To tell a story through the eyes of child will always give a different perspective. This classic black and white film made in 1962 and based on Harper Lee's novel of the same name still delivers its punches with full force. Made at a time when the civil rights movements was gaining momentum in the USA it exposes the small town bigotry and racial prejudice of Alabama that characterises many of the Southern States.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a widowed lawyer raising his two children Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) with the help of their housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). Times are hard in the grips of the Depression and some of his clients pay for his services in kind. He is well respected and maintains good and proper relationships with everyone. His children call him by his first name and the family exude a liberality that pushes the children to ask questions about all manner of things and to present a maturity and knowledge above their years. It is not a straightforward family dynamic but there is something strangely attractive about it. It is however a home filled with love.

The film does have some flaws but these are largely inconsequential. On Rotten Tomatoes it holds a score of 94% among critics and 93% among viewers - I've not seen such high ratings - especially for a film that's been around for 50 years. IMDb gives it a gentler 84% - still a high figure. I am told by a reliable source the the book has never been out of print. It has sold over 150 million copies world wide and on Ebay a first edition is currently on offer for $4,600. It clearly has something to say.

Finch is asked to defend a local black labourer accused of raping a local white girl. Rape itself is a serious enough offence but for a white girl to be raped by a black man puts the crime within the scope of capital punishment. Finch does a good job as the court tries to maintain some semblance of order and justice. He demolishes the prosecution's arguments and discredits their witnesses. He goes on to show that the defendant could not have meted out the wounds alleged to have been inflicted. There is no medical evidence as a Doctor was never summoned. Finch implicates the girl's father who was given to outbursts of drunken rage. It is clear that there is no case for the accused to answer and it comes down to the words of a black man against those of white people. After two hours of deliberation the jury return a guilty verdict. Finch's children, unbeknown to him, are in the courtroom witnessing the whole trial - part of their education about the more unpleasant side of human nature.

I won't go into the ending of the story just in case you haven't seen it - there is more that happens. I hadn't seen this film for many years yet it came to me as fresh as ever. Narrated in the first person by an adult Scout recalling the episodes of the time, it has a charm that films today simply don't have. At one point Scout, who had a propensity for fighting at school says "Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fightin' any more. I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in, the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot... Cecil Jacobs 'made' me forget." The film features a young Robert Duvall whose character is both haunted and haunting - a sign of things to come!

This remains a great film in its own right but also for the story it tells and particularly when the time at which if was first told is taken into consideration. It offers many things to reflect on - the loving yet unsentimental family dynamics of the Finch family, neighbourliness, prejudice and a justice system that delivers injustice. I'm going to give it 9/10.

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