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Million Dollar Baby - Boxing plays an important role in the story, but this picture isn’t about boxing; it’s about human relationships

Feature by: Jack Foley

CLINT Eastwood seems to have found his niche exploring the darker side of humanity, frequently excelling in his depictions of human frailty and journeys towards personal redemption.

In Unforgiven, for instance, he played a former gunslinger, haunted by his violent past, who is forced to return to his old ways in order to bring 'justice' to some cow-hands who have violated a prostitute.

While In The Line of Fire depicted him as a presidential bodyguard still wracked with guilt over his inability to stop the bullet that killed Kennedy, who is given a shot at redemption by John Malkovich's potential assassin.

Even in lesser films, such as Absolute Power, he played a jewel thief trying to patch things up with his estranged daughter.

While Mystic River, his last film as director, revelled in its depiction of four men struggling to come to terms with past actions and guilt.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, to find that Million Dollar Baby, which finds him acting, directing, producing and writing the score, exists in similarly heartfelt territory.

Based on a short story from the collection, Rope Burns, by FX Toole, and adapted for the screen by Emmy-winning screenwriter, Paul Haggis, the film finds Eastwood as luckless gym owner and boxing trainer, Frankie Dunn, who reluctantly agrees to tutor Hilary Swank's feisty female boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald, with a view to getting her a shot at the title.

The ensuing journey forces Dunn to confront his inner demons, from his estranged relationship with his daughter, to the guilt he still feels for the injury suffered by his gym manager, Eddie 'Scrap Iron' Dupris (Morgan Freeman), in his final fight.

And it was the themes of human frailty and personal redemption that first attracted Eastwood to the project.

"What interested me about Million Dollar Baby is the fact that it isn’t really a boxing story," he explains on the film's website.

"It’s a love story about a person who is distressed about his non-existent relationship with his daughter, and who then finds a sort of surrogate daughter in this young girl who is dying to make her mark on the world as a boxer.

"Frankie is searching for redemption. He’s an Irish Catholic guy, who’s in his senior years, and he’s become disillusioned with his church and his lack of a relationship with his daughter. The dilemma with his daughter is very tough on him, and it’s left a huge void in his life."

His subsequent relationship with Maggie forces him to cast aside prejudices he has about women fighters, as well as to confront his fears about entering into personal relationships, particularly a father/daughter one.

And his decision to tutor Maggie marks the key turning point in Dunn's life, as Eastwood states:

"When Frankie finally agrees to train her, the film becomes a love story – not a romantic love story, but a father/daughter love story.

"Maggie is the daughter that he misses in his life, and he’s the father that she lost at a very early age. And it’s through this relationship that Frankie really finds himself and has a rebirth of sorts."

Eastwood views Million Dollar Baby as a film enriched not only by the multi-layered performances of his cast, but by the backdrop against which the characters struggle to realise their greatest desires and confront their deepest fears.

"Boxing plays an important role in the story, but this picture isn’t about boxing; it’s about human relationships," he continues.

"And there are some things that go unspoken in the film. Just as it was with Mystic River, the audience has to participate somewhat in deciding where the story goes after the film ends."

As a result, Eastwood, the director, has crafted a movie that rates among the finest work of his career - as both filmmaker and performer.

It has rightly been hailed as the best film of 2004 by The National Society of Film Critics - a group of leading US critics - and has five Golden Globe nominations.

What's more, it could even land Eastwood more personal Oscar success, given that it rates among the leading contenders for best film and best director, as well as best actress, for Hilary Swank.

It is, in short, a magnificent movie that any fan of great cinema really ought to see.


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