Thursday, 7 May 2009

Movie Review - Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby is the story of a female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), her trainer Frankieie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), and his sidekick / business partner Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman). The film is mainly a character study of the first two characters with many side-plots and subtle nuances along the way. Other peripheral but important characters include Maggie’s mother, Frankie’s priest, and a slightly mentally retarded young man who believes he will be the Welterweight champion of the world someday.

I’m not a fan of boxing – in fact I think it is a basically repugnant sport (if two people trying to brain each other can really be considered a sport). So for this film to win me over, it had to be really special. Not only did it win me over, but it is a very strong contender for my film of the year (2004, though we Brits didn’t get it until 2005).

One of the reasons for this is that although the film does show the positive aspects of boxing, it doesn’t glorify it. You see everything – the glory, the pain, the heartbreak, the feeling of belonging that is all some people have to hold on to. This film takes you on a real rollercoaster of emotion, taking you from the bottom to the top and back again. The scenes of boxing are very well handled and (to me, who knows nothing about it!) looked fairly authentic. The fights however are subsidiary to the plot, and most of them are pretty short. It doesn’t pull any punches (sorry, pun not intended!) with its portrayal of the injuries boxers receive either, which I think is a very positive thing about the film (though some may find these scenes a little unsettling – for instance, in one scene Frankie fixes up Maggie’s broken nose so she can continue a fight, and it looks pretty damn painful!). Just because it’s about women fighting don’t think that it’s going to be about pretty girls not wearing much not really hurting each other – this is the real deal. (Incidentally, I think the idea of women boxing is stupid – I also think the idea of men boxing is stupid – I believe in equal opportunities!)

Frankie’s slogan is “tough isn’t enough”, and when he eventually agrees to train Maggie, you begin to understand why. (He “doesnֶ train girls” and “she’s too old” – but apart from that everything’s fine!) With her guts and determination along with Frankie’s canny knowledge of the game and how to get the best out of his fighters, she becomes a sensation – but at what cost? She has risen from a trailer trash background but her family are still there – can she help them or are they to blame for their situation? Will they be proud of her achievements? Just what is the history between Frankie and Eddie, and what ghosts from Frankie’s past continue to haunt him? Why does Frankie go to church every day – is it solely to annoy his priest (who certainly thinks this is the case!)?

The delicate balance of these questions being unanswered or left unresolved are another key to just why this film is so good. In the back of your mind you are always asking questions. Some answers are given directly and others merely hinted at. It makes the film far more interesting than the story of Maggie’s career would have been on its own.

The acting is absolutely superb. Seeing the interchanges between screen legends Eastwood and Morgan is a pure joy, while Swank (and actress I’m not really familiar with) gives an exceptional performance. Eastwood both Directed and Produced this film, and shows a sure hand in both departments. Towards the end it did seem that the pacing was just a tad too slow… until you realise it’s done deliberately to show the difference between the life of the characters before and after a certain event (which I won’t divulge here). He even wrote the music, which made up of sparsely-used, simple one-instrument compositions – which, however, are extremely effective in adding mood to the film. Already a legend, this movie will do no end of good for Eastwood’s standing in film history. Incidentally, one thing I will give away is that the relationship between Frankie and Maggie is akin to father and daughter – if there had been some kind of love affair between them it would have ruined the film. In fact there are no love affairs in the whole movie, proving that you can have a great storyline (and a truly emotional film) without one – something you wouldn’t believe from the work of most filmmakers!

Though it might not seem like it at first glance, Million Dollar Baby bears more than a passing resemblance to the recent Ladies in Lavender. Swap the boxer for a violinist and the two veteran actors for two veteran actresses, and you’ve got a similar concept – a character study of how a newcomer affects the lives of others and how old memories shape a person’s attitudes. Intriguing stuff, and expertly handled. Of the two this one just gets the edge, partly due to Swank’s amazing performance and the fact that Eastwood’s direction is somewhat more assured than Charles Dance’s (not surprising since Ladies in Lavender was his directorial debut!).

It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether you like boxing or not, this is a fantastic film. 5 stars isn’t enough. It may well even end up on my Top Ten Movies of All Time list.

Other Information

MPAA: Rated 12A (UK) - PG-13 (USA) for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language. [Contains scenes of boxing, some language (not much overall, one instance of the F word).]
Length: 137 minutes

See also my Review of 2004 Movies.

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