The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

The Descendants

I’d seen trailers for this before watching other films and, to be frank, it looked terrible; the montage made this movie look saccharine and clichéd. Its generally good reviews, and the fact that it was directed by Payne, suggested I give it a bit more leeway but the deciding factor in going to see it was that UK cinema releases seem to have gone into a bit of a barren patch; after months of having to decide which film I want to see most, I now have the problem of trying to find a film I want to see at all.

Anyway, the setup. Matt King (Clooney) is a lawyer in Hawaii where he is the trustee for a plot of virgin land owned by his family and has the task of deciding what to do with that land once new regulations kick in forcing the trust to disband. A variety of conglomerates want to build hotel complexes and it appears that the least worst option will be to sell it to a Hawaiian company who plan a golf complex and hotel – the beauty of the land will be defiled but the locals will benefit financially. At this crucial time, his wife has an accident whilst water skiing and goes into a coma and Matt is forced to look after his two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, and face the revelation of his wife’s infidelity and the fact that, but for the accident, he would have been facing a request for divorce (I don’t think this is a spoiler, given that all the publicity and reviews seem to focus on this).

Trying to find his wife’s lover, for reasons Matt himself doesn’t really seem to understand, he takes his daughters on a trip to the island of Kauai and, while there, meets up with some of his cousins and visits the land due to be sold and shows Alex and Scottie the unspoilt bay where he camped as a child, where his eldest daughter Alexandra (Woodley) camped with her mother and where his youngest, Scottie (Miller), complains that she will never get to visit.
The film is much better than the trailer. Clooney is excellent, restrained and understated. Some reviewers appear to think he is too handsome for the role, and that Matt should be more slobby; I don’t see why this should be the case, unless there is some source novel that paints him that way, though I suspect people simply want the hero of a Payne film to look less Hollywood. The two daughters are also terrific and the ensemble really look and feel like a family. The addition of Alex’s friend, Sid (Nick Krause) is slightly contrived and weak but is there for a reason and probably works overall.

The theme, other than the simple story of a family coming to terms with loss, appears to be about the transience of life and our responsibilities to both the past and the future – the title of the film is not coincidental.

It’s a gentle and moving film but not syrupy, or at least not too syrupy, and I was thoroughly glad I got to see it.

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