London Film Festival Review: Stronger

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When making a film detailing the recovery of a victim of the horrific 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, it’s easily forgiven to get bogged down by the emotional side of things. Yet in David Gordon Green’s biopic of the bombing victim Jeff Bauman entitled Stronger, there is an instant balance between emotion, humour and inspiration that makes this easily one to watch out for in the upcoming awards season.

A heroic, human story filled with hope, humour and heart

Jeff Bauman, played by the wonderfully gifted Jake Gyllenhaal, embodies Boston perfectly. Fiercely loyal, sports loving and humorous, Jeff attempts to win his girlfriend Erin ( Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany) back by holding up a sign at the finish line of the Boston Marathon for her, only to be caught right in the epicentre of the horrendous terrorist attack, losing both of his legs. Not only did Bauman survive the attack and recover, on his hospital bed he actually helped to identify one of the bombers. The way in which Gordon Green tells Bauman’s story is nothing short of inspiring, and his heroism provides the backbone for this film intelligently.

The way in which Gordon Green also executed the darker side of Bauman’s story gives the film a real emotional edge that some films just don’t seem to capture. Overwhelmed by all the support and exposure, Bauman is constantly suffering from anxiety, but the worst part is the flashbacks to the attack, with an exchange in a lift with Erin after waving the flag at an ice hockey game being truly hard to watch and it creates a humbling sympathy for what he’s gone through that clearly resonated through the audience.

Not too be overwhelmingly hard-hitting though, Stronger is actually a fantastically funny film. Much like in David O’ Russell’s The Fighter, Bauman’s wonderfully diverse Bostonian family create moment after moment of sheer delight, with some ridiculously inappropriate and cringeworthy exchanges throughout, but the highlight has to be a drunken Bauman being flung off a swing straight into his cousins face, a true slapstick moment, creating a chorus of laughter. The balance in how the story is told makes this film a real winner, combining so many disparate elements wonderfully to create a wholly rounded film.

Virtuoso performances from a perfect cast

In order to truly convey a story such as this, casting is such a crucial element, and my word did they hit the nail on the head perfectly. Jake Gyllenhaal has established himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation since Donnie Darko, and once again he mesmerises in probably his most emotional performance to date. He captures everything about Bauman right down to the tee, nailing the accent but most importantly bringing such a heroic, conflicted and brilliantly funny person to life in a way that resonates throughout the audience. Whilst it’s easy to spend a lot of the film laughing at Gyllenhaal’s fantastic comedic timing, when the moments of sheer emotion come round, he transitions so smoothly into the broken and struggling Bauman and makes playing such an emotionally challenging role look so natural. It’s a truly gritty, hilarious and heroic performance that will more than deserve an Oscar nomination, and could potentially make him a real front runner come the awards season.

Tatiana Maslany is well known for her chameleonic like performances in Orphan Black but she really shines as Erin in Stronger. She portrays Erin’s own struggles over Bauman’s recovery intelligently and emotionally, and her and Gyllenhaal’s on-screen chemistry is absolutely fantastic, with both conveying their tumultuous relationship perfectly. Without giving too much away, there is a scene where they have an argument in the car in which Maslany’s performance hits its pinnacle, and again its a performance that is more than Oscar worthy, bringing pure emotion and balance alongside Gyllenhaal.

The third stunning performance in this film is Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mother Patty, very reminiscent of Melissa Leo’s Oscar winning turn in The Fighter. She’s clearly someone who loves her son very much, and the way in which everything affects her is truly understated, but she brings solid humour and contrasting emotions to the table with great ease, therefore making another performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Quite clearly, the film is defined by its excellent casting and should really be a big player in the acting categories come awards season.

The Verdict

Where many films with such emotional weight stumble, Stronger simply doesn’t. Okay so there isn’t any true technical marvels such as amazing cinematography or editing, but frankly it doesn’t need that to be a truly wonderful piece of filmmaking. It’s inspiring story is told intelligently and intertwines humour and emotion perfectly, and Oscar worthy performances by Gyllenhaal, Maslany and Richardson make for such a well rounded film it is impossible to see it not being a major contender for awards.

Rating: 9/10

Words by Elliott Jones

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