Columbus ★★★★★

COLUMBUS leapt out of the 2017 NZIFF programme and lodged in my brain. I would have seen it then but for wanting to be with my heavily pregnant wife in our last days before parenthood; I would have seen it 18 months later, when it came available (briefly) on the Rialto section of SKY Go, but either the file or my computer was corrupt and I never got it sorted before it disappeared off the platform. Fast forward to March 2021 and my beloved Kanopy put it up, so I mustered as sceptical a mindset as possible in the face of close to four years at the top of my to-see list and pressed play.

The opening shots -- fixed camera, carefully selected angles, an eye for a notable building or tree -- felt like being placed in the hands of a master, which is not surprising, considering these shots and basically the entire film are a naked homage to Ozu. The scene that really made me feel like this was something different, though, was the first between Gabe and Casey, with Gabe distracted by the marginalia in his book and Casey defaulting to a smile as she tries in vain to connect with him. There is a lot of this from Casey: a smile to deflect discomfort, others' and her own. Anyway, the dialogue, deliberate performance from both actors, and especially the editing of the scene lock in a narrative rhythm already established by the various shots of Columbus itself: clean lines, concealed emotion, hidden depths. Blank slates and possibilities.

I didn't even realise I was looking at Columbus, Indiana until at least half way through. Same as most people who see this film, I imagine. Columbus, Ohio is the most famous Columbus of several US cities; Columbus, Indiana is a small town in the Midwest, population ~50,000, that just happens – by the graces of a wealthy, mid-20th Century industrialist – to be a Mecca of modernist architecture. COLUMBUS is often spoken of as asking whether architecture can literally heal, and indeed, the lead players discuss this very question. The most remarkable buildings in Columbus are eye-catching but assertively functional, intended to be used and explored. In setting his drama against them and taking inspiration from them, director Kogonada does the same with his film, inviting you to share space and time with his characters by mirroring the buildings' austerely beautiful style.

As Casey, Haley Lu Richardson is as compelling as anyone I've seen in the last few years. That quickness to disarm with a smile and a laugh is bang on for the character, who will have spent her most formative years doing exactly that to manage wayward parents. She is old too young, grown up too fast, still flushed and awkward in a teenager's body despite having to navigate the brick walls and blind alleys of the adult world. As an actor, she has to portray naivete and worldliness, and occasionally a deep well of anger, often all at the same time, while inhabiting a lived-in, fully formed character. I think most actors would resort to broader strokes, especially in delivering the bigger emotional moments. But Richardson nails a muted subtlety that makes sense for a character who will have learned to dampen outward shows of emotion. Strained smiles and muted dialogue may yet be all she does as an actor, but they are perfect for this role.

As Jin, John Cho is as precise and magnetic as ever, finally given the chance to show off his long-evident leading man skills. (See also: SEARCHING.) The script centres Casey, so it's easy to overlook how much Jin changes over the course of the film, especially as Cho reveals the character's vulnerability only in subtle gestures. When he does break down, the catharsis is fully earned – and Kogonada shoots it at a distance, giving the characters the privacy we've come to respect.

A quick nod, too, to Michelle Forbes, Rory Culkin, and Parker Posey, who are all excellent in supporting roles – particularly Forbes, who conveys years of trying and failing and trying again to overcome her shortcomings in, oh, about five minutes of screen time. Her past is revealed almost as an aside and is all the more surprising for it. It's just another example of how Kogonada shows his characters' troubles – and those of the society around them – are well worn in and facts of who they are; troubles that are illustrated in the choices they've already made, rather than in climactic moments.

The key to making new choices – not necessarily better, but at least different – seems to be in making connections: with each other, with the spaces they inhabit, with their past and future. At the surface level, we have Casey sharing her favourite buildings with Jin and their discussions about architecture that follow. But notice how Kogonada takes us inside the Miller House three times, and by the third time, it's a holy site that metaphorically saves one of the characters – having previously, in the film's opening moments, sent Jin's father off to have the cardiac arrest that sets the film's narrative in motion. It wasn't until a second viewing that I noticed how COLUMBUS circles back on itself here, and I was deeply moved. Architecture itself may not be able to heal, but it may be able to help us connect with each other and our society in the ways we need, and lead us somewhere new. And maybe that's enough.

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