NEWS OF THE WORLD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Paul Greengrass

Stars: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp, Thomas Francis Murphy, Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, Fred Hechinger.

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1870. A veteran of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels across the country reading the news from papers he collects, sharing stories of disasters, politics and gossip for audiences in every town he visits. He is mainly talking to people who are illiterate or have little time to read the newspapers themselves but are only too happy to pay a dime to hear him read the news in his engaging fashion and inform them of what is happening outside their small community. The importance of accurate news reports, even 150 years ago, gives a contemporary resonance to the material in this era of “fake news” and a healthy distrust of mainstream media. In one frontier town he is strongly encouraged by Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), the despot who controls the town, to read his own self-published publication, one filled with hateful rhetoric, but he refuses, bringing about a minor insurrection.

Travelling through Texas he stumbles upon Johanna (Helena Zengel, from System Crasher), a 10-year-old orphan girl who had previously been kidnapped by the Kiowa tribe before being rescued. He reluctantly sets out to return her to her biological uncle, her only remaining family. But it is a journey fraught with dangers as the pair travel across 700 miles of harsh and unforgiving wilderness, both looking for a place of refuge and safety.

This is something of a redemption tale as Kydd is still haunted by the things he witnessed during the bloody Civil War and he is also still grieving over the death of his wife while he was away from home. The relationship that develops between Kydd and the feral Johanna – even though they cannot communicate in the same language – is the emotional crux of the film, and gives this the feel of a typical road movie, albeit set in the old west. It’s a familiar trope but it again works well here.

Hanks is reunited here with his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, who elicited one of the dual Oscar winner’s best performances in that tense sea hijacking drama. Greengrass usually gives his films a sense of immediacy and urgency through his use of rapid cross cutting editing (the Bourne films, United 93, etc), but here he employs a more deliberate and measured pace that suits the material. There is an extended sequence in which Kydd and Johanna are pursued through a treacherous rocky terrain by three killers that is milked for maximum tension.

Hanks is a likeable and consummate actor, and here he brings his innate sense of intelligence, decency and quiet gravitas to his role of the taciturn Kydd. But there are a couple of scenes that also demonstrate that he is indeed capable of handling himself in dangerous situations and confrontations with a few of the villainous characters roaming the wild west. This is the first English language film for young German actress Zengel and she acquits herself well in the emotionally demanding role as a young girl caught between two cultures.

The screenplay from Greengrass and Luke Davies (Lion, etc) is based on the 2016 novel written by Paulette Jiles, and illustrates that, even though the Civil War ended five years earlier, the southern states are still very much divided socially and politically.

The film was shot on location in New Mexico and the open landscapes gives News Of The World the look and feel of an old fashioned western, from the heyday of John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, although it serves up a far from romanticised view of the old west. The gorgeous widescreen cinematography of veteran Dariusz Wolski (The Martian, etc) gives this an epic feel.

★★★☆

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