Universal Pictures
At the Quality 16 and Showcase

2.5 out of 5 Stars

Everyone involved in “Changeling” has received praise from the critics during the past several years. Angelina Jolie received high marks for her work in last summer’s “A Mighty Heart.” Clint Eastwood won multiple Oscars in 2004 for “Million Dollar Baby,” only to be nominated again with “Letters From Iwo Jima.” And Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) and John Malkovich (“Burn After Reading”) are awards-circle bait. Judging by the cast list alone, the movie sounds like a high-quality melodrama, and that was the thought heading into this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Yet amid all the excitement of Cannes, there’s always an anticipated entry that few speak of after the dust settles. “Changeling” is one of those films.

Based on the true story of Christine Collins (Jolie), a telephone operator in 1920s Los Angeles whose son was kidnapped, “Changeling” is a complicated, dramatic thriller about one woman’s investigative journey.

Coming back from work late one afternoon, Collins discovers her son has disappeared. Frantic, she seeks the aid of the L.A.P.D. to find the boy, only to be swept into a mass of corruption, false identity, child murders and her own incarceration. It’s “Law & Order: SVU” circa 1928.

The movie sets out to portray one woman’s fight against incredible odds for what she knew was right. The police clearly don’t find the right child, and despite Collins’ claims to the contrary, she is forced to take the child as her own. The moronic gender politics of the period are well-displayed within the dynamic between Collins and the patriarchal government. With its powerful themes, the story has both great successes and dismal failures.

The film begins perfectly with a gorgeously pale palette like one would expect from a somber, thoughtful period piece. Jolie’s Collins is nothing exciting, but that’s how she’s meant to be portrayed. Her confusion and hysteria caused by the disappearance of her son creates a painfully bewildering experience that plays the audience like a piano. But then something happens.

Collins ends up being sent to an asylum where she is labeled delusional due to her protests over the child. An investigation into a possible string of child murders makes the movie feel almost like a horror movie. The morbid atmosphere is supposed to hint at the awful things that could have happened to her son. However, the sudden shock value of the asylum makes for heavy-handed exploitation material, and doesn’t work or flow well with to the subtle beginning of the film. It’s less like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and more like “Women Behind Bars.”

These scenes, mixed with Eastwood’s shock-and-awe style, make it difficult for the film to recover. It almost does.

If we ignore the superstar baggage that follows Angelina Jolie, it’s not hard to see what a great actress she can be. Nuanced, doe-eyed and always sincere, Jolie’s depiction of Collins is achingly real. She puts her all into the role, but unfortunately it’s just a boring part. If only she had better dialogue — or any good lines, really.

For its incredibly moving story and great performances, “Changeling” ‘s characters are under-developed and the plot is inconsistent. Eastwood directs the melodrama as well as he directs his best work, but legal and thriller elements don’t suit his style. This ultimately makes for both a good and bad film. “Changeling” is worth seeing for its memorable, disturbing story, even if it’s not particularly well-told.

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