My rating: ***
Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter written by English screenwriter Peter Morgan is a film about how three different people in Chicago, Paris and London cope and fail to cope with the question of what happens after death in a secular society where discussion and investigations of such issues are effectively taboo. It is also a film about grief and loneliness – the isolation that we all face when it comes to death. The film draws attention to the fact that there are few contemporary secular social rituals which provide any support in dealing with these difficulties and people are forced to improvise with varying degrees of success. It is a surprise to see Eastwood dealing with this kind of subject matter and one can perhaps speculate that given his age his thoughts might be turning to matters of death and the afterlife.
There were a number of things aside from the ostensible subject matter of the film (which also, incidentally, included a romance even if this was not evident until the end of the film) which held my attention more closely and one of those things was Clint Eastwood’s direction. The opening special effects with one of the main characters being swept up in the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia were quite spectacular and the impact of this scene will no doubt be further magnified for current viewers by the devastating and terrible tsunami which has hit Japan in 2011. This scene, in the casual suddenness and sheer size of the event and the clarity with which it is shown on screen, provides perhaps some appreciation of what experiencing such a disaster might be like.
In this scene and others, Eastwood’s direction allows you to see clearly what is happening in the external environment around the characters and he is able to create a strong sense of place. You really get a feel for London, Paris and Chicago. Eastwood also conveys the feeling of how crowded the contemporary world is. People are everywhere, all going hurriedly about their unrelated business.
Much other contemporary film makes it very difficult to see the physical and geographical environments in which the characters move. The use of the infamous ‘shaky cam’ – hand-held camera whether real or simulated – the application of colour filters, post production visual effects, fast editing, studio sets and CGI all blur the environments in which the characters are placed. One of the worst mainstream examples of this I have seen was the most recent Bond film A Quantum of Solace (2008). What is the point of spending enormous amounts of money on special effects if the camera is so shaky and has such a narrow and short focus you are unable to see what is happening on the screen? It is a technique which made that other Bond clone The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) fairly unwatchable as well. I would like to suggest that along with the other censorship ratings there should be a new category –‘extreme shaky cam’. One could thus be pre-warned and able to avoid a headache inducing experience where you actually don’t get a chance to see much.
Too few contemporary filmmakers are interested in providing the viewer with a sense of location. Or perhaps what I really mean by this is a sense of place that I can personally read and understand. Thus travel documentaries are not necessarily the solution here. I recognise the Paris and London that Eastwood shows. They feel right. Other fairly recent films which have struck me in this regard are Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) (watching the countryside pass by through a windscreen), Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) (‘the Sicilian scene’ setting – the snowy train tracks, derelict cars and trailers of Detroit) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) (the entire film). Perhaps it is my desire to be a virtual tourist – to see other places, almost to experience them through film –but also to observe them as an outsider, a foreigner, that attracts me a certain kind of visual rendition of the environment. Avatar (2009) tried to do this with its alien CGI world, but I found it too riddled with clichés to work.
It was also refreshing to note that Eastwood didn’t resort to the usual cliché of the screen caption to designate place – eg the ghastly London, England trope – presumably a device to distinguish it from some obscure London that exists in the US. He instead used establishing shots of famous landmarks – such as the Tower Bridge in London or the Eiffel Tower outside an office window in Paris.
Moving away from Eastwood’s direction, I would also like to add a few comments about the script. Peter Morgan is an English screen-writer whose previous notable entries include The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008). Just as the subject matter of the film marks a departure for Eastwood, this purely fictional outing was something different for Morgan who also notes that he was not used to his scripts being used as written without a difficult process of negotiation during the making of the film. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that of the three characters whose stories we see in the film, it was the story set in London of the young boy who lost his twin brother that most resonated for him. (Incidentally, the boy’s trek through London using stolen money to pay for any number of bogus psychics adds a note of understated humour to an otherwise serious film.) For Eastwood, it was the story of the unwilling and tortured psychic in Chicago, which was his point of entry and, as Morgan remarks, the casting of a star in Matt Damon tends to skew the film to make the psychic the central focus.
I was also struck by discussions between the female French character and a publishing team about producing a book on François Mitterand and some rather pointed comments about him at the end of his tenure as President as nothing but an old man with mistresses and a dubious history of shadowy connections to the Vichy regime. Perhaps given Morgan’s interest in prominent twentieth century political figures we might see a film on Mitterand at some point in the future. (One can hope!)
To conclude, I had not intended to write such a long review, particularly as I found the ostensible subject matter of the film didn’t create many personal resonances, but as is sometimes the case with films, I find that it is not always the central storyline that necessarily grabs your attention.
Interviews with Peter Morgan
Interview on Den of Geek
15 minute video interview with Clint Eastwood about the film