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Reviews

Birdman

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cert 15, 119 mins

 

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) stars Michael Keaton as an actor famous for a superhero movie trying to resurrect his career in more serious work. This is not a joke, although the audience knows that that's pretty much what Michael Keaton is actually doing with this film. His Riggan Thompson struggles with the weight of public expectation and the voices in his head, putting on a play which is challenging both emotionally and financially. His co-star (Ed Norton) is an actor of absurd intensity, willing to abuse people and destroy relationships in the name of art. His closest associate turns out to be a recently post-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) who isn't exactly delighted with her job. She tells her dad that trying to be taken seriously by putting on a play is ridiculous - he's not on Facebook, so as far as she is concerned, he doesn't even exist. She finds an evil twin in the form of the New York Times theatre critic, who believes he isn't worthy of a Broadway stage, and is preparing for opening night just to take him down. The person Riggan trusts most is the superhero alter ego who functions as a kind of good cop/bad cop coach, sometimes encouraging him to rise above the criticism, but sometimes embodying it.

A story like Birdman could have been told as an inspirational triumph-over-adversity-return-of-the-hero- accompanied-by-swelling-strings, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu opts for something far more audacious. Hitchcock's Rope (a drawing room thriller edited to appear as if shot in one take) and Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (an exploration of St Petersburg's Hermitage filmed in real time) are obvious inspirations. Birdman's camera follows Riggan, first seen literally levitating in his dressing room, snaking down corridors, swooping through the city, zeroing in on characters with uncomfortable intimacy. There is no breathing space - when a character goes to sleep, the camera rises for a moment, then returns to his body. As with real sleep, it feels like it was over in just a second.

Birdman is a tremendous technical achievement, and a wonderful ride. It's refreshing to see magical realism justified as a foundation to the story rather than merely used as a gimmick; and special effects employed to make a point about what dreaming feels like rather than just getting the audience off on explosions. Keaton is utterly compelling, drawing out empathy for the part of each of us that has known failure and the hope of a return. His story reminds you that real power can't be equated with fame or money, but with how much a person is working toward owning their self. And it doesn't wrap things up neatly - the bad guy isn't caught, the good guy doesn't get the girl, and the ending is wonderfully, dramatically, melancholically brimming over with the courage of its convictions. Learning to live with uncertainty might be the key to happiness; but the struggle for clarity will inexorably find its way into the consciousness of anyone trying to take life seriously.

To paraphrase the screenwriting guru Robert McKee, the battle between Being and Becoming can only be won by a draw. How you feel about that statement might determine how you feel about Birdman. It's a meaty film, and actually almost uncategorisable - it's definitely a drama, but there are lots of laughs; you'll believe a man can fly, but you'll be frightened for him too. Think Samuel Beckett with magical powers and you're halfway there.