Wednesday, 25 June 2014


by Brian Hannan

COLIN FIRTH and Reese Witherspoon are billed as the stars of The Devil’s KnotThis is Atom Egoyan’s documentary-style account of the trial of the teenage West Memphis Three, accused of the diabolical murders of three eight-year-old boys in 1993.

The movie is involving, but people on these shores may struggle to keep up as the director assumes a familiarity with the notorious case, and his dispassionate style verges on sedation.

A small town, riven by grief, fear and hysteria (the murders are thought to be the work of a Satanic cult), is well drawn. The police are more human than normal, the shock on their faces at discovering the bodies testament to that.

The movie takes some liberties with the facts; for instance, in reality, the bodies were discovered the next day, but since movies require more tension, the hunt lasts days.

But with so many characters bobbing around, Firth and Witherspoon were clearly parachuted in to lend the movie some focus.

Perhaps Firth was attracted to the name of his character – Ron Lax – or owed someone a favour. Firth has been struggling to follow up his Oscar-winning turn in The King’s Speech (2010). Hollywood had him pegged for comedy (as Hugh Grant’s slightly smarter brother, perhaps) but Gambit with Cameron Diaz was a flop.

Firth prefers serious work, but few people were attracted to The Railway Man or Arthur Newman or Main Street (bonus points if you have heard of the latter) and he was in the supporting cast (albeit in a pivotal role) ofTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

It’s hard for a British actor (apart from Daniel Day-Lewis) to be taken seriously in Hollywood. Liam Neeson’s rebirth as an action hero is courtesy of the French. Otherwise, the cream of British acting talent normally surfaces as a villain.

Blame floppy-haired Hugh Grant for changing perceptions of the capabilities of British actors. The hard-edged performances of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Michael Caine are now a distant mirage.

Firth has coped by turning himself into an American, as he does here, with a fine head of hair and a passion for antiques (he is introduced at an auction bidding thousands of dollars).

In one sense, he has the central role, as an investigator giving his services to the accused for free. And that would be great, if the director let him play the crusading private eye.

Instead, Egoyan is as interested in the impact of the murders on the community and on the police and the accused and their parents and the victims’ families and the judge and…you get the idea.

The title is apt. It’s the very devil finding space for Firth and Witherspoon. They end up being a distraction. Stars are meant to get more time onscreen.

To make sure we don’t forget they are there, the director resorts to showing them exchanging glances (for no meaningful reason) in the courtroom, or for Firth to loll about at the back of the court (of a rather officious judge, would you believe).

Ron Lax did uncover important evidence, but since the climax of the movie takes place in a courtroom, where an investigator has no place, the movie struggles to include him.

Worthy projects have a nasty habit of turning into career cul de sacs.

Firth is next up in Woody Allen’s Magic by Moonlight, where he plays second fiddle to Emma Stone, and Before I Go to Sleep (second fiddle to Nicole Kidman). To keep his career on track he has wisely pulled out of the role of the voice of Paddington Bear.

Witherspoon is in the same boat, both movie-wise and career-wise. After winning an Oscar for Walk the Line (2005), Hollywood stuck her in romantic comedies. Mud, her last serious turn, attracted good reviews but little box office.

Here, as a victim’s mother at least she gets to emote and, in another creative liberty, turns amateur sleuth. One last point, this has a 15 certificate, but contains one of the most shocking images of children I have ever seen.