The concept of Green Book is an interesting one. On it’s surface, it’s an amalgamation of storylines – a road-trip film, a buddy movie and a romantic comedy all rolled into one. Yet these ideas are executed so well, it allows what should be a pretty familiar narrative to feel entirely fresh. It’s received a huge amount of attention, picking up Oscar nominations in almost all of the ‘big’ categories. I am happy to report it’s more than worthy of the praise.
Green Book tells a dramatised version of a real-life story. Tony ‘Lip’ is a bouncer in a glamorous New York bar. He is recruited as a driver by Dr. Don Shirley, one of the most accomplished pianists in the world, who is about to embark on a concert tour of the deep south of America. In environments full of hostility and bigotry, a beautiful friendship forms between these two unlikely partners.
The strength of this film really rests on the shoulders of the performances of the two leads, who are both superb. Mahershala Ali cements his place as one of the most distinguished actors working right now. It’s an incredible physical performance – he embodies such swagger and class. He balances his gentlemanly grace with deeply moving emotion and turmoil in what all amounts to a beautifully nuanced turn. And as you might expect from a musical doctor, he smashes the concert scenes, bringing such energy and vitality to each number. Viggo Mortensen is also fantastic. It would have been very easy for his character to devolve into a caricature of an American-Italian in New York (HEY I’M WALKING HERE), but whilst there is the slightest hint of that in his performance, he manages to bring depth and a larger than life humour to the character.
The film as a whole is an optimistic view of fairly dark subject matter. I’ve heard criticisms that suggest it doesn’t treat the issues it covers with enough weight. But it certainly doesn’t shy away from them. I would actually argue it’s an impressive feat to address issues of racism and homophobia meaningfully, whilst still maintaining a tone of tenderness and warmth. The most enjoyable parts of the film are the conversations between the two men on the road. Don Shirley helps Tony write letters to his wife, Tony introduces Shirley to the wonders of fried chicken. There’s a wonderful give and take to their relationship and it’s genuinely lovely to witness them come to terms with and move past their differences into friendship.
I’ve also read complaints that suggest the whole story is falsified to present a story of a white hero saving the black man. Whilst it’s certainly true that most of the story we see unfold in the film is completely fictionalised, I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. The film never claims to be a historical account – the narrative is merely based on the friendship of Tony and Don rather than the actual trip that happened. I personally have no issue with the creative license they’ve taken to create this version of the story, especially as it’s such a lovely story to tell.
Green Book is the perfect movie to lift you out of your January/February blues. Ali and Mortensen are stunningly good in an uplifting, heartwarming story of friendship and love in the face of adversity. And isn’t that just the kind of story the world needs right now?