Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)

07Aug11

Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Albert Finney (Ed Masry), Aaron Eckhart (George). Screenplay by Susannah Grant. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rating: 15. Running time: 130 minutes.

Imagine for a second that cinema had existed from the beginning of time. The beginning of human time, that is, so we had a library of films stretching back past Plato. It would be the richest of social records historians could wish for. Just by making art, people can unknowingly tell so much about their context, and the audio-video combination is about as revealing as it gets.

My point is this: if we had such a record, I don’t think there’s a single moment in history in which Erin Brockovich could have been made except now. And by that I don’t mean to point out the banal – that legal systems this complex are a modern phenomena, and that the cars the characters drive are new models. I mean the film is a product of its time in a highly important way; a way that calls for some careful archiving indeed.

I am referring, of course, to the fact that despite the barriers that remain to this day, it is only in the last twenty, perhaps thirty years that a single mother of three could make this ascendancy from unemployment to exposing a tragedy, and becoming a prejudice-destroying millionaire in the process.

That’s not to say Erin’s rise – based firmly on a true story (hence the importance) – is the film’s obvious and overarching subject. Soderbergh hasn’t explicitly sought to create a modern American parable here. His touch, in comparison to his other work that I have seen, is extremely delicate. He seems to have decided on a sunny visual tone and got Newman to compose some complimentary notes before letting the camera sit back and allow the story to tell itself. He is clearly a man who knows how to film drama. There’s not a hint of faux-sentiment here, but just a quiet sense of delight at what we are witnessing, and that’s Julia Roberts rip down patriarchy, class barriers and corporate power, and – dare I confess? – bring us by the end to the verge of tears of happiness.

When I react emotionally like this – which, you must understand, is very rare. Only two other films I can think of have done this to me, and they are Blue Valentine and Biutiful – I never know how to explain the power of the film without just insisting you see it and share the experience, and I suppose Erin Brockovich is no different. Yet I note, despite widespread praise, a handful of influential critics had reservations about the film’s authenticity, suggesting that on reflection we see it cheats us into feeling more than the story’s execution deserves.

I don’t share this judgement at all. Perhaps it’s down to the fact that, instead of focusing on it artistically, I found myself incapable of thinking of it as anything but a social revelation. When I insist on its importance, I don’t mean people will be studying Roberts’ acting style for decades to come, however wonderful she is here. I mean it’s impossible to watch the film without thinking about feminism in a way no amount of books could ever stimulate so strongly.

That’s what is special here. Not the exposé of unbelievable, inhuman behaviour from a big business, which is as bad as what we learn in The Insider, but should no longer surprise us for all the disgust it induces. For some reason, upon learning they had poisoned an entire community and ensured cancer, amongst other dreadful illnesses, would plague over 400 people for the rest of their lives, the reaction of the bosses of a billion-dollar Californian water company wasn’t to feel horror, and seek to help and make amends immediately. It was to profess ignorance, cover everything up, and ensure the long term suffering of helpless hundreds. That’s incomprehensible to anyone with a heart, but it happened. Erin Brockovich the woman relentlessly pursued the truth, and Erin Brockovich the film shows us what it meant for her to do that. We admire her drive, we see what women can do where most men would either break down or be stuck for ideas. We, with the film’s characters, are reminded not to prejudge. And we leave with the tricky but crystal clear truth that Julia Roberts just touched our hearts, for an enthralling, exceptional, 2 hours of cinema.

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