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Green Book (Viggo Mortensen/Mahershala Ali) - Review

Green Book

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

TAKEN at face value, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book is a charming ode to an unlikely real-life friendship that also has plenty to say about the state of race-relations in America, both past and present.

Upon debuting at Toronto, the film quickly became an audience favourite (and picked up the top award) and almost instantly became one of the year’s major awards contenders (Oscar and BAFTA nominations have since followed, on top of Golden Globe wins). And yet, the film also seems to have become bedevilled by controversy.

The story takes its inspiration from the true story of two polar opposites: Tony Lip and Donald Shirley (played, respectively, by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali). The former is an Italian-American muscle man, the latter a renowned pianist. Both live in New York.

When Shirley decides to undertake a tour in America’s deep south towards the end of 1962, he hires Lip to be his chauffeur and guide.

Yet while initially mindful of each other’s differences, a begrudging respect slowly begins to develop that eventually blossoms into a friendship. Lip overcomes his prejudices and receives a first-hand understanding of the deep-rooted racism inherent in southern America, while Shirley warms to his driver’s lack of culture.

Their ensuing journey is as heart-warming as it is powerful, deftly combining humour with drama to finally deliver a genuinely poignant conclusion.

And yet, as honest as the film’s intentions undoubtedly are, there are those controversies. The script – which was co-written by Farrelly, actor-producer Brian Hayes Currie and Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga – has been accused of over-simplifying the race element (especially in its depiction of the green book of the film’s title), while also framing a black man’s story into a white person’s redemption narrative.

And it is, perhaps, telling that the awards nominations the film has received reflect this, with Mortensen consistently being shortlisted for best actor, and Ali placed as support – although Ali has, subsequently, picked up more wins as a result.

More damagingly, relatives of the late Shirley have slammed the film and dismissed it as inaccurate, saying that the pair never became friends and that some of the film’s assertions about Donald’s feelings towards his brother were part of “a symphony of lies”. They claim that Ali, himself, has phoned them to apologise – although, more recently, Ali has stood by his decision to make the film.

While being mindful of these criticisms, I still found Green Book to be an inspiring film, and an important one.

Green Book

Farrelly, who cut his teeth co-directing comedies such as Dumb & Dumber and There’s Something About Mary with his brother, has taken on an issue that still resonates with America [and the world] and shown how difficult prejudice is to overcome, while also shining a light on a shameful element of America’s past.

There are scenes throughout the film that will still make you gasp, given how recently the events took place, and which hold lessons for anyone willing to listen. And while there is undoubtedly a simplicity to the way in which things unfold, it’s done in a way that refuses to overlook the enormity of the problems the film has in getting certain people to see it.

Green Book is the type of film that has the potential to begin to repair a broken world, just by acknowledging its frailties and offering some kind of hope for change.

And then there are the performances. Mortensen and Ali are immense. Neither men are afraid to present themselves as unlikeable, at times. Yet they are given the space to explore their complexities and to grow.

Mortensen does have the showier role, by virtue of the Italian-American flamboyance of his character – a fast-talking, often foul-mouthed, frequently gluttonous giant of a man, who refuses to stand on ceremony, but who finds his attitudes put to the test by what unfolds before him. It’s funny, it’s surprisingly moving and it’s authentically human.

Ali, meanwhile, quietly brings Shirley into the foreground as a man whose principles imbue him with a tremendous dignity. He is a different kind of force to be reckoned with, a movement for change who places his own safety in danger. And while he has his own prejudices and fears to overcome, Ali presents Shirley as a fierce pioneer, whose bravery and humanity is easy to admire.

It’s for these reasons that Green Book works as well as it does, even overcoming most of the controversies surrounding it. It therefore remains one of the must-see movies of the year, driven by two of the finest actors working in America today.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 10mins
UK Release Date: January 30, 2019