One of this awards season’s biggest players, it seems odd that the man who directed Dumb and Dumber and the truly abysmal Movie 43 has directed a Best Picture nominee in the form of the race biopic/drama Green Book.
Based on the story of Italian-American doorman/driver Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga and esteemed classical pianist Dr Don Shirley, Green Book chronicles a concert tour of the Deep South in the 1960s where Dr Shirley enlists the initially reluctant Tony to work as his personal driver/bodyguard. The reason why Green Book seems to be favouring so well during the awards season, despite its genuine lack of technical quality, is surely the way in which it details how Tony’s initial racism towards African-American people is suddenly transformed through his blossoming friendship with Dr Shirley, despite all their obvious cultural differences.
To what extent this overwhelming message of equality is achieved is a matter of opinion, as the fact the film is directed by a white man for a predominantly white audience can be obviously viewed as problematic. Despite this, Green Book comes across as a mostly genuine effort to promote equality, portray this unlikely friendship and enable a greater admiration and appreciation for the genius and bravery of Dr Shirley.
As mentioned, Green Book doesn’t shine technically, with a few nice shots scattered throughout the pair’s road trip and some solid editing work, though fortunately these technical elements are lifted by a cracker of a script. Currently one of the favourites to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay despite controversy surrounding a tweet by scriptwriter and real-life son of Tony, Nick Vallelonga, Green Book’s script has a delightful blend of wit, charm, humour and equally truly heartfelt moments that draw a variety of emotions from the viewer and keep the story engaging. It’s one of the film’s saving graces that certainly warrants its place amongst the other nominees in a strong category this year.
A film of this nature, however, is only effective when the actors who carry the story are at their very best, which in Green Book’s case, is indefensibly true. As Tony Lip, the never-silent, constantly-eating, heart on his sleeve wiseguy, Viggo Mortensen leads the film with a transformative performance, perfectly embodying the character. He tends to carry most of the film’s humour and after Tony’s earlier apprehension about working for a black man, becomes the vehicle for the film promoting equality in his admiration for Dr Shirley’s talents. Earning himself a debatably deserved Oscar nomination considering the strength of the field, Mortensen doesn’t put a foot wrong in easily one of his best performances to date.
Unsurprisingly though, it is Mahershala Ali’s towering performance as Dr Shirley that garners the film’s most praise. Ali brings such dignity, grace and honesty in his attempt to properly depict the conflicted genius with the respect his prodigious talent demands. Though a very private person in real life, Green Book enables Ali to portray Dr Shirley’s tussles with his race and sexuality in a way that commands the viewer to feel a variety of emotions, from sadness to anger and to an overwhelming admiration for a musician so surprisingly underappreciated. Ali not only received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor but is rightly the favourite to take home the gong, given the way he effortlessly brought Dr Shirley to the silver screen.
Green Book is undoubtedly a heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship that is able to somehow blend humour into a rather bleak story of racial tension and homophobia, albeit through a white point of view. Besides the script and some sporadic moments of fine cinematography, the film offers little technically, but is really boosted by two phenomenal performances, particularly Mahershala Ali who looks like he’s going to deservedly take home Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. Green Book is a great testament to the life of Dr Shirley and respectively raises awareness for the problems he faced, though doesn’t do enough to really earn itself a place amongst the favourites for Best Picture.
Words by Elliott Jones