Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. In terms of modern-day thespian talent it doesn’t get much better than these two performers and in Green Book, they get the chance to bring their impressive skills to bear in a remarkable true story that will have a profound effect on your heart.
Based on an extraordinary true story, when New York bouncer and all-around tough guy Tony Lip (Mortensen) takes a job as a chauffeur to the eloquent and cultured Jamaican pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) the two men are in for the trip of their lives which will change each of them in the most unexpected of ways.
Noted director Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) takes a huge side step from his comedy roots for the heartfelt Green Book and the result is a very well thought out and impressive piece of cinema. Based on the remarkable true story of two completely different men who took a whirlwind journey across the southern states of America in the tumultuous era of the mid-1960s, Green Book really takes audiences for a ride thanks to its narrative. Primarily a character based drama where the film’s events draw out our characters and their evolving actions, Farrelly places his attention on getting to the core of who these two men are and how via their interaction with one another they each make the other better.
Setting up the film is Viggo Mortensen who takes on the role of Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, an all-around tough guy bruiser and bouncer who makes his living at the classic mob hangout The Copacabana and even has mob connections himself. But the thing is Tony is actually a decent guy and is just trying to do right, and he finds his chance to do this through the presence of Don Shirley. As Tony, Mortensen again lets his method style take over and he completely transforms into this goodfella beefcake. While he’s got a rough exterior, through the narrative of the film you see that he has a very big heart and that he’s an all-around decent guy. It’s a great performance on the part of Mortensen because he effectively makes his audience fall in love with a character who starts off as extremely unlikeable, but who we eventually feel a whole heap of sympathy for as the layers come away.
Joining Mortensen in the film is Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali and once again he gives another incredible performance here. As the supremely talented classical pianist Don Shirley, Ali is the complete and total opposite of Mortensen. Refined, cultured and exquisitely elegant, Shirley takes it upon himself to help elevate Tony from his mooch station and through their trials and tribulations together a friendship is built. What I liked about Ali’s performance was that he almost plays his character as two distinct personalities. There’s the outward facing Shirley, who prides himself on status and appearance and then there’s the internal Shirley who carries a deeply pained psyche and whose position in the world has caused him to sacrifice much which tears at his soul. Ali’s performance is dramatic and wrapped with emotion and he pulls his audience back and forth and in doing so creates a truly 360-degree portrait of a truly interesting human being.
One of the things that I absolutely loved about Green Book was that we were really seeing the road movie come alive. It’s one of my favourite genres through its ability to examine character and explore growth and Green Book greatly benefits from it here. Through Farrelly’s clear narrative we come to see how the characters of Tony and Shirley grow into their friendship, which begins in a place of reprehension and loathing but through the world around them leads to acceptance, admiration and ultimately friendship. Along with its ability to draw out character, the film’s road setting also offers Farrelly some great moments for comedy and Tony’s opening up to a wider world beyond his Brooklyn hood leaves him as a bit of a fish out of water and there are plenty of situations that will make you laugh.
It also has to be made clear that Green Book is a film which focuses its central theme on race, and is an exploration of two men and the changing America that they find themselves in. While the film’s Jim Crow setting leads to some unpleasant moments, it’s through these trying times that the relationship between Tony and Shirley is made stronger, and as two unique outsiders to the world around them they have a surprising reaction to it. I feel that Farrelly’s intention is to keep the film as a representation of America’s past history, but there are moments that make it strikingly contemporary and this is a film which really asks its audience to consider how we should interact with one another and that more is ultimately gained from inclusion and acceptance.
In addition to its polished narrative and heavy themes, Green Book is also a film that is beautifully captured. Planting its audience firmly in the early 1960s, Farrelly and his collaborators, who include cinematographer Sean Porter, production designer Tim Galvin and costumer Betsy Heimann, really play up the glamour and beauty of the era and the film is extremely elegant in its delivery. From the blue-collar toughness of Tony’s short sleeve polo shirts to the refined tastes of Shirley, who frequently moves from tux and tails to more African influenced choices, Green Book radiates a beautifully accurate portrait of the time period and its visuals certainly sweep up the audience into the experience of the movie.
Green Book is an absolutely charming piece of cinema and features two of the best performances you’ll see on screen all year. It’s a piece of cinema that should be treasured and is a testament to the power and importance of friendship.
Image: eOne Films