Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel headline Paul Greengrass’ rolling-news western, News Of The World, now on Netflix UK – here’s our review.
“To go forward, you have to remember,” says one of the characters in Paul Greengrass’ News Of The World. Where modern westerns trend towards using genre trappings and the relatively new history of America to tell allegorical stories about contemporary concerns, it’s not the first priority for this adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel.
Even so, it’s hard to see how Greengrass could have landed some of the timelier aspects of this hearty drama if he had planned it. Set in the post-Civil War reconstruction era, the current parallels in this story of people navigating a divided nation are inevitable rather than shoe-horned in for topical resonance. Besides, it was filmed in September 2019 and originally intended to hit UK cinemas last Christmas.
The drama follows dogged Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kidd (Tom Hanks) who now works as a travelling newsreader, reciting from a sheaf of newspapers for paying audiences. His career is disrupted when he encounters Johanna, (Helena Zengel) a young white girl and “an orphan twice over”, who was taken in by Kiowa Native Americans as a baby and thus doesn’t speak any English.
Dutybound to reunite Johanna with her only living relatives, an aunt and uncle who live 400 miles away, Kidd gradually learns to communicate with the girl and discovers they’re both struggling with past trauma. Together, they contend with the untamed wilderness and wilder-yet antagonists in their way on the trek to find some kind of peace.
Their road may be rocky, but the film rarely has to veer from the middle of it. What Greengrass and his co-writer Luke Davies have assembled here is a de-problematised throwback to classic westerns that absolutely makes the most of its ‘Just Add Tom Hanks’ factor.
Casting the star in a similar American bellwether role to those he played in Bridge Of Spies and last year’s Greyhound, the film swerves any difficult questions or baggage that should automatically come with any sympathetic Confederate veteran character. His performance is conflicted, solemn, and just as terrific as we’ve come to expect from him.
But it’s a two-hander, and Zengel’s performance as the kid to Hanks’ Kidd is every bit as stunning as you’ve heard. Their dynamic perfectly suits the more grounded and measured approach of the drama, and the young German actor’s expressive, heartsick performance even gives her multi-Oscar-winning co-star a run for his money. The empathy between the two is what brings a quite reserved and traditional outing to life.
Greengrass does employ some of his trademark kinetic photography to shake things up in perilous moments but uses that technique more sparingly than in most of his previous contemporary actioners, largely reserving it for the obligatory shootout and wagon chase sequences. Perhaps it’s the influence of Ridley Scott’s regular cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, that stabilises this in more naturalistic western territory. Either way, this handsome-looking film is altogether more focused on emotional judders than the cinematic kind that made the director’s name.
The thematic thrust comes in those scenes where Kidd addresses the news to disconsolate southern audiences, with the clear aim of entertaining as well as informing and educating. Happily, the extended mid-film episode involving a town pacified by fake news from a shit-heel militia leader (Thomas Francis Murphy) feels slightly less current than it might have done a month or two ago, but the film has relevant things to say about the communication between the truth and the legend in storytelling and narratives.
The quote that opens this review figures heavily in the structure of Greengrass and Davies’ script. Although the story keeps moving constantly, it presses forward dramatically whenever it reckons with the characters’ traumas and those of their respective people. It’s a film that recognises that history has to be accepted before it can be left behind.
There are frankly few surprises to be had in News Of The World‘s straightforward story, but the headline here is the double act of Hanks and Zengel, who breathe life into the adaptation from beginning to end. Ideal for watching at home at this exact time of year, it’s a robust, unfussy western that travels under its own steam and is all the more arresting for it.
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