It's all in the detail

Film - Philip Kerr on a portrait of the Depression that is as persuasive as it is beautiful

Attention to detail is the most obvious manifestation of genius as many people understand it. And, as in any other art form, it is attention to detail that turns a good movie into an excellent movie. That and money, naturally: detail is expensive.

There's a story told about David Lean, who, during the making of Lawrence of Arabia, came to feel that General Allenby's desk in Cairo lacked something, and so despatched some hapless gofer all the way to London and the Imperial War Museum, to fetch back a photograph of Allenby's wife with which to dress the desk. This detail was especially expensive, because Mrs Allenby's photograph never actually appears in shot, but Lean still believed that it would help Jack Hawkins, who was playing the general, to do the scene.

Maybe this is taking detail a little too far, but there is no doubt that the individual elements that make up a thoughtfully designed production can create an effect similarly luminous to that produced by the French neo-impressionists, who crowded the surface of their canvases with small points of various colours, which were blended by the eye of the beholder.

In Road to Perdition, the director Sam Mendes pays scarcely less attention to detail than David Lean, and his depiction of the American Midwest during the Depression is as persuasive as it is beautiful. From the very first moments of this picture, everything, from the crowds of downtrodden factory workers to the posters in the windows of a tobacco shop, exists to persuade you that you are really back in 1931.

The film is the story of an Irish mafia hitman, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), who runs foul of John Rooney (Paul Newman), a bootlegging boss, when his own young son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) witnesses a St Valentine's Day-style massacre carried out by Sullivan and Rooney's elder son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Hanks is great, but it is the 77-year-old Newman who manages to steal the show with a faultlessly accented performance that will surely garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

There have been many similarly large claims for this film. The "most enthralling picture you'll ever see", raves the Daily Mail; "easily one of the greatest films ever made", declares Larry King. Neither of these encomiums is true, but it is still a pretty damn good movie, and very likely the best film I have seen this year. But it stops short of being the diddly-di version of The Godfather - which is the most enthralling film you'll ever see - for a number of reasons.

The movie is too dark both in story and in atmosphere to withstand such a comparison; and things might have been improved by a change of pace - an adagio to contrast the noirish plot's allegretto and allegro non troppo. As it is, the movie suffers a little from being unleavened by the tempering elements of romance that distinguished Coppola's masterpiece. Most egregious of all, there are two scenes that look as if they were edited in after a test screening in some other murderous, no-account town in the Midwest, and which (to my eyes anyway) stick out like a pair of hammered thumbs.

But in truth these are small criticisms, and it gives me much greater pleasure to report that Mendes's second film is even better than American Beauty, his Oscar-winning debut. His films show several similarities, not least of which is the slightly elegiac, almost Proustian piano music supplied, in both cases, by Thomas Newman. The two films also have the same dreamlike sense of pace, top-and-tail voice-overs, and similarly cathartic endings. But there the similarities end, for Road to Perdition is cinema on a much grander scale than American Beauty. Indeed, there are times when the driving, relentless rain, the omnipresent gewgaws of Roman Catholicism, the gunman- hugging shadows, the chattering tommy-guns and close-lipped brogue are all enough to suggest that older conflict, which has been Ireland's own long, brutal road to perdition.

There is even an aspect to this Irish-American tragedy of fathers and sons that puts you in mind of Shakespeare, and it is easy to see why Mendes, with all his experience in English theatre, should have been drawn to the story. He carries it off marvellously.

For all that, Road to Perdition has not fared particularly well at the box office in America, which is perhaps understandable. With its almost complete lack of redemption, it offers much too bleak a story to a nation that is currently preoccupied with perdition of a very different kind. Highly recommended.

Road to Perdition (15) is on general release

Next Article