Film Review: Freedom

Australian musical theatre star, Peter Cousens, has reinvented himself as a film director, and his debut feature is not a cheap slasher horror or gritty suburban crime thriller, but a big budget drama tackling important social and historical issues, shot in the US with a big name cast. Aspiring filmmakers should be jealous. I know I am.

Coming hot on the heels of Django Unchained and other slavery themed productions, it is easy to dismiss Freedom as Twelve Years A Slave-Lite but Cousens’ feature is a very different creature altogether.

Screenwriter Timothy A. Chey runs two plot lines in parallel. The first is set in 1856, following slave Samuel Woodward (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his family as they escape from a plantation in Richmond, Virginia and begin their dangerous journey to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Not far behind throughout their journey is slave hunter, Plimpton (William Sadler).

Almost 100 years earlier, we meet ship captain John Newton (Bernhard Forcher) who is struggling with his faith and conscience as he transports slaves, including Samuel’s great grandfather, to the New World.

This reviewer found the second plot line to be the least effective. Although developing a human connection to his cargo through a series of incidents at sea, Newton’s final expression of kindness is to pen the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, not save anybody from their hell-like future existence. I suppose the song does provide Samuel and family some comfort and motivation a century later. It may also have helped my understanding of the film had I been aware that John Newton composed the iconic song. Pardon my ignorance, I assumed it was written by God.

Samuel’s tale, on the other hand, is a gripping tale of escape and near recapture, and I was willing Gooding Jnr. and co to get across the border throughout the whole 98 minute runtime.

Although not a musical, Freedom uses music, in particular singing, as a metaphor for the humanity that we all share. I was moved by some of the numbers, sung in their entirety, such as the joyous singalong between the escapees and a troupe of theatre performers, including Australian musical theatre headliner Tony Sheldon. Less successful were a few songs, performed out of context, musical theatre style, especially Samuel’s wife Vanessa (Sharon Leal) breaking into tune whilst walking inside a church. The result was being snapped out of my engrossment and remembering that I was watching a film.

Freedom was shot on location in Connecticut. It looks beautiful, courtesy of cinematographer Dean Cundey (Back to the Future, Apollo 13).

The cast is wonderful. I have no idea how Cousens’ managed to enlist such a lineup for his first feature. Cuba Gooding Jnr. really delivers in his best performance in years as his Samuel struggles between the choice of revenge or freedom. William Sadler is capably menacing as a slave hunter with ethics. Even one of my favourites, Terrence Mann (The Dresden Files, A Chorus Line) makes an appearance.

Peter Cousens has concocted a beautiful and haunting film which will appeal to a “Best Exotic Marigold” audience. Despite its religious undertones which frankly did not bother a non-believer like me, Freedom still has plenty to say about slavery, an issue which is just as relevant now as it was in 1748 and 1856.

Published in: on September 6, 2014 at 00:26  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Post-Oscar career slumps: it could happen to you

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 25th January 2011.

The Oscars are almost upon us. On February 27 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, the stars will come together for Hollywood’s night of nights. The nominees are yet to be announced, although I’m pretty sure that Natalie Portman and Colin Firth already have their speeches ready. Whilst I’m certain that every actor would love to be called to the podium to receive an Oscar, there isn’t any guarantee that a career will continue to soar after winning arguably the world’s most famous paper weight.

Christoph Waltz burst onto the Hollywood scene in last year’s Inglourious Basterds, winning the Oscar for Best Actor. Although not an overnight success (he has been working in theatre, television and non-Hollywood films for over thirty years), his depiction of the cruel and ruthless Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece made audiences take notice. Many cinefiles such as myself couldn’t wait to see what this obviously very talented Austrian would do next.

Disappointingly, he followed up his Oscar winning performance as a villain with a role playing practically the same villain in The Green Hornet which hit screens last week. I’m sorry, but being in 3D doesn’t give a performance extra depth. Coming up next for Waltz is an adaption of The Three Musketeers. I just hope he’s not playing a cruel and ruthless villain.

Cuba Gooding, Jr followed a remarkable turn in Boyz n the Hood (1991) with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Jerry Maguire in 1996. His critically acclaimed performance as footballer Rod Tidwell spawned the catchphrase, “Show me the money.” Unfortunately for Gooding, his Oscar win was for acting, not role selection, and it has been downhill ever since.

How do you follow-up the role of a lifetime? Why not take on the challenging Shakespearian drama of Boat Trip (2002), Norbit and Daddy Day Camp (both 2007)? Gooding’s acting work has been the exclusive domain of direct to TV movies for the past two years. I guess we all have to eat.

After a string of erotic thrillers and action films in the eighties and early nineties, Kim Basinger took out the 1997 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for L.A. Confidential. As femme fetale Lynn Bracken, she was perfectly cast as the Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute. With the exception of a few major releases such as Cellular (2004) and The Sentinel (2006), Basinger has been working on small independent pictures and television since. She also has had the dubious honour of portraying Eminem and Zac Efron’s mother in 8 Mile (2002) and Charlie St Cloud (2010), respectively.

Who can forget Roberto Benigni’s over the top reaction to winning the Best Actor Oscar in 1999 for Life is Beautiful? I think almost everyone would like to forget it. The excitable Benigni climbed over the seats and applauded the audience before making his way to the podium to make a giddy speech. Unfortunately since then, he has directed and starred in Pinocchio (2002), which bombed at the box office, as well as taking roles in epic historical dramas such as Asterix and Obelix vs Caesar (1999).

Unless you’re receiving a lifetime achievement honour at the Academy Awards, the assumption is that the best is yet to come. In the ever changing world of Hollywood, that is not always true despite talent and luck. Still, a win is a win and being an Oscar recipient ensures your name will be in the record books forever. Hollywood history shows that in time, only the good films are remembered. Did I mention that Orson Welles’ final performance was in Transformers: The Movie (1986)?