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The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Fact versus Faith in a courtroom setting with a little Exorcism thrown in
This is an interesting hybrid of two film genres: courtroom drama and religious horror. I am a fan of both genres, so I found it doubly enjoyable, especially with the immensely watchable Laura Linney in the central role.
Ms Linney plays a seasoned and ambitious lawyer who is assigned to defend a Catholic Priest who (it is claimed) is responsible for the death of a young girl (Emily Rose of the title) entrusted into his care. A self-proclaimed agnostic, Ms Linney's character finds herself questioning her own beliefs (or lack of them) during the course of the trial, by the end of which there is little doubt that her life will have changed forever.
As always, the courtroom stuff makes entertaining drama, though it may not pay to look too closely at the main legal premise (the principle of "causation" is never satisfactorily established); but the primary focus of interest is, ultimately, the philosophical conflict between the 'rational' (fact) and the 'spiritual' (faith), highlighting the issue of the role of religion in the 21st century. For the characters in the drama, there will of course be no definitive answers, though the makers of the film clearly intend otherwise for the viewer by introducing flashback sequences that can only be explained in supernatural terms - in a sense a mistake, perhaps, as this detracts from the essences of both debating perspectives.
These flashback sequences however do provide the vehicle for the film's horror elements: demons and ghosts; moving objects; mysterious shadows; even the devil himself, it seems. There is much subtle borrowing from classics like the Omen and of course the Exorcist, but some of the horror ideas are original, like the scene where Emily is found out of bed all contorted. All entertaining stuff, if you like that sort of thing, but almost certainly window dressing for the film's core plot.
Another important theme the story explores is that of commitment and sacrifice. The Priest, all but completely abandoned, refuses to depart from what he sees as his chosen responsibility to Emily Rose ("to tell her story"), even at the risk of incarceration. As a backdrop, it lays the foundation for the fact/faith debate; on screen it leads ultimately to the unleashing of the most disturbing vision of all that the film has to offer.
The film is nicely photographed and the story is coherently presented. The cast is not A List, but more than competent. Other than Laura Linney, the film features Tom Wilkinson as the priest, sporting an uncomfortable American accent; Campbell Scott as the Prosecutor; veteran Mary Beth Hurt as the abrasive but fair-minded judge; and newcomer Jennifer Carpenter as the unfortunate Emily Rose. All acquit themselves well, but it is Linney you watch, Linney you root for, and Linney who completely dominates the film.
Which of course is never a bad thing.
Handsome on the eye, but missing much of the detail
Devoted fans of J K Rowling's series, especially those erstwhile readers who absorb the tiniest of details and can quote from the book unseen, may be disappointed by the film.
True, the film delivers the essentials of Ms Rowling's story in spectacular style, but a lot of the nuances and sub-plots are lost in the great sweep of action.
The problem is that the book is just too long to be condensed into a two or three hour movie. Rowling wrote over 700 pages of narrative, packed with intricate detail, and so obviously some things had to go. This will be the same problem for the next two books and I'm sure the last one.
The good points: wonderful cast, old friends and new faces, amazing sets, incredible effects - lots more magic in evidence! - fabulous costumes, and a wonderful Voldemort as played by Ralph Fiennes. All in all a fantastic visualisation of the world created by J K Rowling.
The not-so-good points: creaky acting from the principals (sorry, Daniel - but he is improving); a sense of rushing through everything, which resulted in insufficient characterisation and the loss of many of the less important aspects of the central plot which had nevertheless added to the charm of the book.
I personally missed the boarding school feel of the earlier films. There were hardly any lessons featured and the staff (always a great joy for me) were essentially employed for a series of brief cameos. School had been taken over by this all-important tournament, for which sizeable contingents from other schools appeared to have deposited themselves at Hogwarts for the whole year! There are of course holes in the story that J K Rowling wrote in the first place: anyone will be able to list down pages of 'what ifs' and 'why didn't he's. (Why didn't Harry simply refuse to compete in the contest if he felt his life would be in danger?) Credulity is often overstretched, but the world created is so fascinating that we forgive and accept even as we turn the pages. On screen, though, these weaknesses are a whole lot more obvious.
And what about those viewers who come to the film without having read the book? There is a basic plot that can be followed, and the pictures on screen are pretty, but a lot may be incomprehensible; mainly because of the pace, but also because the Director does not bother to 'explain' from scratch. There is a clear assumption that the viewer 'knows something' about Harry Potter's world, and will adapt easily to port keys, disapparation and the latest batch of unforgivable curses. But for the uninitiated, there is scarcely a reference to the circumstances of Harry's scar, let alone its role in the plot. The viewer will simply have to pick it up later from somewhere else.
Yes, the camp site scenes are messy and lack clarity, and yes, the plot details are sometimes inadequately conveyed, and yes, characterisation and motivation is sometimes poor. But the atmosphere, the menace, the magical other-worldly feel - all these have been captured magnificently; in summary, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: a good looking film with quality effects, peppered with interesting character cameos and an intriguing (even if illogical) set of challenges; and for this and the tribute it pays Ms Rowling, the film deserves an average to high product rating.