It shouldn’t be unusual to praise a film for its storytelling prowess—especially one based on a best-selling novel—but it’s something I no longer take for granted. Other films may succeed as mood pieces, character portraits, or expressions of personal creativity. This one transported me to another time and place, like a good book, following two characters (played by Tom Hanks and young Helena Zengel) as they embark on an odyssey through Texas in the late 1800s. When it was over I felt as if I had experienced it myself.
Hanks admirably underplays the part of a former Civil War officer who’s lost everything. He now ekes out a living traveling from town to town reading colorful newspaper items as an evening’s entertainment. Because he’s a decent man he agrees to take an orphaned girl who was captured by the Kiowa back to her real family. She is hostile at first but the two travelers eventually make peace with one another.
Adapted from Paulette Giles’s novel by director Paul Greengrass and Luke Davies (whose credits include Lion and Beautiful Boy), News of the World is episodic but never strays far from the main road, carefully revealing pieces of the past that illuminate its characters and explain their frame of mind.
Hanks finds nuance and shading in the person of Captain Jefferson Kidd. His innate likability is always an asset but this is screen acting at its best. Newcomer Helena Zengel (a standout in the German film System Crasher) captures all the quicksilver emotions she’s called upon to express and makes a solid impression. Supporting roles are ably filled by Ray McKinnon, Elizabeth Marvel, Mare Winningham, and Bill Camp.
Moviegoers who associate Paul Greengrass with the hyperactive pace and jumpy camerawork of the Bourne series with Matt Damon may be pleasantly surprised at his skillful handling of this expansive material. A number of set-pieces show off his skill at staging action, but like his leading man he knows when to trust the script and how to take full advantage of the impressive New Mexico locations. Kudos to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and composer James Newton Howard for their contributions to the film’s success.
The film is rated PG-13 but shows no signs of soft-pedaling the starkness of its story or some of the hard-bitten people our protagonists encounter. I would love to watch this with an adolescent audience to see if it fires their imagination as it has mine. It definitely ranks as one of this year’s finest movies.