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December 26, 2014
Theatre has a peculiar kind of energy that cinema can sometimes lack. There is tension and excitement that only a live audience and the awareness of no further takes can give. Birdman, with its Broadway theatre setting, has been able to capture this vigour and bring it to the silver screen.
This latest effort from director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams) tells the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up movie actor, who is trying to regenerate his career and reputation through a theatre project. Much has been made about the links between the real life career of Michael Keaton and the fictional character he plays.
Keaton appeared in Tim Burton’s Batman over twenty-five years ago and there are some obvious comparisons to be made between him and Riggan, who played a fictional super-hero called Birdman around the same time. The casting of Keaton may on the surface appear to be a gimmick but these parallels are never distracting and never get in the way of the story or the themes of the film. If anything, these comparisons add depth and interest to the events on screen but most importantly do not overshadow the film itself.
The characters are purposely broad and at times even fall into cliché and caricature. Michael Keaton plays the washed-up actor, Edward Norton the Broadway thespian, Emma Stone the maladjusted daughter of the Hollywood star. These caricatures are familiar to us all and are the mainstay of tabloid media. The brilliance of the film though is the way in which it is able to subvert these stereotypical show-business types.
Edward Norton is able to express this eloquently, showing the flawed and fearful feelings which lie beneath his public persona. The Birdman alter ego of Riggan is a step too far. The brilliance of Norton’s performance and character is that themes of identity and self-presentation are expressed in subtle and non-overt ways. The manifestation of Birdman, as a doppelganger to Riggan, seems to work against this subtlety and to tell the audience something they already know.
Birdman does remain interesting throughout its two hour running time, and even in its minor flaws it is intriguing and is probably Alejandro González Iñárritu’s best film to date as it wisely avoids the pretentious messages that make Biutiful (2010) and Babel (2006) feel self-absorbed and indulgent. It might be about self-obsessed people but it is more interested in satirising their lives than indulging their whims. Keaton and Norton are especially good at poking fun at their public images.
A lot of attention has rightly been paid to the technical achievements of the film. The camera moves effortlessly through the theatre setting, and fluently links the backstage areas with the stage itself. The long takes make this all the more impressive, with complicated sequences remaining uncut. The film blends together seamlessly to give the illusion that it is one long take.
For a film that deals with such grandiose themes Birdman is remarkably enjoyable. Personally, it takes a lot for me to suspend my disbelief but Iñárritu was able to hold both my attention and imagination for the film’s entire duration. It’s a flick of rare intensity and this tension is balanced by truly comic moments that are always a joy to watch.
As entertaining and amusing as the moments of satire can be, it is the surprising relatability of those on screen which makes Birdman as captivating as it is. For most of us, the showbiz worlds of Broadway and Hollywood sit in the far reaches of our imaginations, and the idea of being part of it is simply absurd. The great achievement of the film is to transport the viewer to this world and to show them that the characters’ struggles of identity and meaning are not too far from our own.
Birdman is released nationwide in the UK on January 1st and in selected London cinemas on Boxing Day.
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Wyndham Hacket Pain