* * * 1/2
Jason Clarke, an Australian actor with an eclectic CV straddling up-market Hollywood action and thriller fare (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Zero Dark Thirty, Terminator Genesys), quiet American indies (Mudbound, All I See Is You) and intriguing, relatively large-scale international properties (Everest, The Man With The Iron Heart, Winchester, Child 44) has found his Hamlet, in the unlikely role of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Working with the similarly eclectic director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), who made his first film, Praise, in Australia, Clarke presents a complex and believable Kennedy, full of contradictions, flaws, self-awareness, and weakness. As portrayed, Kennedy is a very strange lead character for a film, but the events depicted here were strange indeed, and the film is extremely compelling.
If you know “everything” about Kennedy’s mishap at Chappaquiddick, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, in 1969, then you’ll at least have the enjoyment of seeing very good actors bring the story to life. With the exception of Ed Helms as Kennedy’s fixer cousin Joe, and Bruce Dern as Ol’ Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, Curran has filled his North Eastern insular universe with a delightful smorgasbord of mostly unfamiliar character faces, all of whom look, feel and sound like 1969. Along with its other qualities, the film is a textbook example of good casting.
But the less you know, I suspect, the better. I knew of the incident vaguely; the film covers a few days, and I knew about the first one. As it went on, past the incident and into the aftermath, I grew increasingly enthralled. Curran had the great benefit of astonishingly rich source material – the truth here is very strange indeed – and to his credit he has brought it to the screen with great nuance. There are a million shades of grey here, a fascinating and disturbing look at the wheels of American power, and a finely calibrated insight into the truly bizarre Kennedy family dynamic, which seems to have honestly incorporated the belief that they were born to rule. There are many themes at play here, but the most surprising one is that of thwarted destiny, when that destiny is a myth spun out of gossamer and tragedy.