SEBERG

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Benedict Andrews

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Colm Meaney, Stephen Root, Yvan Attal.

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American actress Jean Seberg (played here by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) made her film debut in 1957 in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, but subsequently found fame in France in the 60s as one of the darlings of the French New Wave of cinema. She starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless. In 1968 she returned briefly to Hollywood to star in the musical Paint Your Wagon, opposite Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

Always interested in politics and activist causes Seberg was drawn towards the charismatic Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), one of the leaders of the black power movement in America at that time. Her relationship with Jamal brought her to the attention of the FBI, who put her on a watchlist as part of their COINTELPRO covert surveillance program that targeted subversives, dissident groups and organisations. The FBI placed Seberg under surveillance and bugged her house and even started a smear campaign against her to discredit her and her politics. This placed enormous pressure on the actress, whose physical and mental health slowly suffered. It is suggested that this contributed to her fragile mental state and increasing paranoia, and may have even led to her suicide in 1979 under mysterious circumstances that have never been satisfactorily resolved.

Seberg is not a straight-forward biopic of the actress, who starred in mainstream films like Paint Your Wagon and the big budget, star studded disaster movie Airport, but rather it concentrates on those four years in which she was under FBI surveillance and the toll it took on her and her career. However, biographical details are teased out throughout the drama via some re-created footage of scenes from her auditions, newsreel footage, and interviews that give us some insights into her personality.

The script has been written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (The Aftermath, etc), and offers up a blend of fact and speculative fiction. The pair have drawn upon FBI files for much of the material, but they have also taken liberties for dramatic effect. The film is an exploration of the blatant abuse of government powers and the loss of privacy, themes that seem chillingly relevant even today. They have created a pair of fictional FBI agents here with newly minted operative Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell, from Unbroken, etc) and bigoted veteran agent Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn). An intriguing subplot follows Solomon as he grows disillusioned with his assignment – after all that was not what he signed up for when he joined the FBI – and he begins to question his assignment. This subplot is far more interesting and engaging than the main plot which follows Seberg the actress.

Seberg is only the second feature film from Australian director Benedict Andrews, a veteran of the theatre who has directed several filmed versions of plays for the National Theatre Live initiative; his last feature film was Una, itself an adaptation of a stage play. His pacing here is deliberate and slow, giving us time to take in the drama. He has clearly been inspired by those classic paranoid thrillers of the 70s – Klute, The Parallax View, The Conversation, etc.

Production values are excellent, with Jahmin Assa’s production design and Michael Wilkinson‘s costumes all capturing the look and feel of the era. As does the brownish hued cinematography of Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, etc), which creates a nice visual contrast between Seberg’s world and that of the FBI agents.

My biggest problem with the film though is that Stewart, as fine an actress as she is, doesn’t really look much like Jean Seberg. Her nuanced performance does manage to capture her essence and convey her fragile emotional state and her passionate beliefs and rebellious nature, and also captures her vulnerability. It’s one of her best performances for some time. But I was conscious of watching Kristen Stewart act rather than see the ill-fated character she was supposed to be playing.

Mackie is great as the charismatic Jamal and brings fire to his performance. O’Connell gives the piece its moral compass and some depth with his performance as Solomon grows troubled by the FBI’s program, and Margaret Qualley is fine as his wife Linette, who questions his actions and further pricks his conscience.

Seberg looks at a fascinating period of Hollywood history in which an actress was tragically destroyed by the whims of the powerful FBI, but somehow this drama is not as engaging as it should have been. This lacklustre biopic is something of a missed opportunity that doesn’t do justice to the troubled life of the eponymous screen star.

★★☆

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