Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Review: The Butler (UK Cert 12A)
On paper The Butler- or Lee Daniels' The Butler, as we're supposed to call it, thanks to some petty wrangling by Warner Bros because they own the rights to a 1916 silent film of the same name- should have 'Oscar-bait' written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. Based on a true story, it's historical, it's got a veritable host of amazing actors, it's a very worthy drama... it should tick all the boxes. Yet it didn't pick up a single Oscar nomination back in January and has only had scant major awards recognition in general (SAG and BAFTA notwithstanding)
The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who went from sharecropper's son in Georgia to the maitre d' of the White House. Serving all American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, Gaines is placed at the heart of American politics while events such as the civil rights movement, Vietnam and anti-apartheid are discussed. It's very loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, who served as a White House butler for thirty years, but I can't help but feel that a straight-up documentary about Allen's extraordinary life would have been better than this muddled, sprawling mess.
A lot- and I do mean, a lot- of dramatic license has been used to create the storyline for this film. Screenwriter Danny Strong has thrown so much into the pot that, at times, it loses focus. At times, it feels like two films that have been inexpertly edited together- the Gaines' family drama and the upstairs-downstairs drama of the White House. Of the two, the latter is more successful and more engaging, seeing Gaines (albeit on the periphery) as American history is being made and changed. I can understand the desire to reflect the societal changes on a more personal level but it's not always successful. When the spotlight is on Gaines' family life, it feels like kitchen-sink melodrama- especially as it contrives for one of Gaines' sons to be involved in the Black Panther movement and the other to go to Vietnam, as well as giving him a wife with an alcohol addiction. The tension between Gaines- as part of the Establishment- and his firebrand son Louis is an interesting one and one played well by Whitaker and David Oyelowo but it does tend to overbalance into polemic on occasion. Oprah Winfrey is on good form as Gaines' wife Gloria but the mounting issues she has to deal with- drinking problems, the temptation of an affair- come straight from a soap-opera which really undercuts things. I also felt the opening scenes- set on a cotton plantation in the 1920s and featuring implied sexual assault and then very definitely unimplied murder- felt out of place, almost as if they'd been tacked on from a different movie.
Performances are solid throughout, with some being quite exceptional. Whitaker's stoic, dignified and humble central turn is one such performance- without such an empathetic central character, the film would suffer more than it does. There are good performances (albeit glorified cameos) from Robin Williams, Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman as Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan respectively. Other presidents served by Gaines- Ford and Carter- appear only in archive footage in what feels like a quick rush towards the finish line.
The Butler has an intriguing and interesting story at its heart but the end result is muddy, unbalanced and scattered. It had the potential to be a great film; it's just a merely good one.
However, I would suggest to anyone interested in the story of The Butler to read The Washington Post article it's based on - A Butler Well Served By This Election by Wil Haygood- and the Independent's obituary of Eugene Allen, who passed away in 2010.
Rating: 3 out of 5