Rebecca Hall should have dominated awards season for her performance in Christine
Should a biopic about Christine Chubbuck exist? Many believe the story of the young news anchor who shot herself live on air in 1974 should never be made, out of respect for the dead. A recent documentary, Kate Plays Christine, focused on the very topic, concluding that making a film about Chubbuck could only be exploitative. However, in Antonio Campos’ hands, Christine is a moving, troubling story that never feels at all exploitative, mostly due to the career best work of Rebecca Hall in the title role.
Working for a local news station, Christine finds herself more and more frustrated with the way journalism is going; “If it bleeds, it leads”, as her boss (Tracey Letts) tells the team. The pressure to show more “blood and guts” piles on Christine, along with her rather lonely personal life and an operation that could make it impossible for her to have children. While she’s clearly a lovely person (spending her free time performing puppet shows at a children’s hospital), her abrasive behaviour and social anxiety leave her with nobody to turn to (a co-worker who takes an interest in her turns out to be a member of what appears to be a self-improvement cult). It’s a difficult story, but Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich look past sensationalism to study the human behind the tabloid headlines.
Though Christine is difficult to warm to – an uncomfortably intense figure who struggles to get close to anybody – Rebecca Hall’s performance is staggeringly sympathetic, ensuring that Chubbuck is tragic without ever feeling manipulative or false. One of the finest depictions of mental illness ever, Christine has just enough optimism and hope that her defeated attitude feels like a light bulb being switched off, and Hall uses her face and body without resorting to tics, creating a livewire, agitated woman similar to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s a real stunner, and if it wasn’t for the film’s tiny budget and box office takings, Hall would have gotten major awards buzz.
Hall carries the film, but the supporting cast are uniformly good. As the anchorman Christine falls for, Michael C. Hall does predictably good work, taking what could have been a caricature and making him feel like a real person. Tracey Letts is fiery as the station’s boss, feeling like a character from Sidney Lumet’s classic satire Network (which was partly inspired by Chubbuck), while Maria Dizzia (Orange is the New Black) is quietly heartbreaking in a small role as Christine’s closest friend; her epilogue is tender and delicate in a beautiful way.
In the past, Campos has felt self-consciously “directorly”, with both Afterschool and Simon Killer being stylish, controlled studies of disturbing characters. Apart from a few noticeable camera movements (constant back-and-forth panning during Christine’s game of “Yes but…”), he’s toned his visual style down, and it works for the better, focusing mostly on capturing Hall’s incredibly expressive face to propel the story forwards. Only the film’s middle section feels baggy and slow, as the script struggles to bridge the gap between the optimism of the first act with the disturbing, controlled-chaos of the finale. It’s kept engaging by Hall’s performance, but losing 15 minutes of the runtime could have made Christine a minor masterpiece.
Working with a moving, sensitive script, and directing Hall to the finest performance of her career, Campos has crafted a beautifully humane portrait of mental illness, tackling a difficult subject in the least-exploitative way possible. Though a little overlong, Christine is consistently engrossing, and never relies on morbid fascination; instead, it engages and deeply sympathises with a lonely, vulnerable woman. The film could have been luridor sleazy in the wrong hands, but Antonio Campos and Rebecca Hall have instead made an emotional, thought-provoking biopic.
By Harry J. Ford
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