DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
How I never watched this is still beyond me, especially as I have read and loved Harper Lee's novel and know of this film's reputation. Guess it just never happened.
Harper Lee's novel was written in a time when the Civil Rights movement in the States was given a new impulse because one Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat and when the so called Jim Crow Laws, laws that completely segregated black people from white people, were slowly disappearing from the country. Lee wrote a stunning, layered bildungsroman about a small town in the South of America in the 30s, a time when segregation was an inescapable fact in society. Lee's novel dealt not only with that, but also with the coming of age of its narrator, the then six year old Scout Finch, whose adult self relates a story of how her brother broke his arm. It is a pivotal novel in American culture as it provides a slice of history, dealing with tough subjects, commented on through they objective eyes of a young child. Lee's choice to write her novel from Scout's perspective is an inspired choice. Throughout the story Scout makes a couple of rather racist remarks, made out of innocence and ignorance, showing her to be a product of her environment. Lee this way comments on the state of affairs back then without passing real judgement and providing viewpoints from several angles.
A story that deals with racism, the danger of the masses, integrity and what defines us in the adults we become, and one that is told with so much conviction, passion and intelligence does not easily cross mediums. And while the films is certainly lacking in the exploration of some of these themes, they still complement each other beautifully.
What this film's scriptwriters understand really well is the fact that in the film version it is impossible to have the same narrative perspective. Scout still narrates the story, but only as an indicator of the passage of time. Because of this narrative change and some small tweaks, the main focus actually lands on Scout's brother, Jem. which is fine as the coming of age theme is still present. It is very important that the focus remains with the children and the opening credits are a testament to the fact that this film intends to do just that.
The plot follows the broad strokes of the novel, intermixing the three storylines of the family, the courtcase and the Boo Radley storyline really well. The family running as a thread throughout them and linking the themes of the innocence of childhood and tolerance beautifully.
Peck's performance is immaculate. He radiates intelligence and empathy, never going overboard and keeping it very understated. His performance carries the film and makes the excellent cast shine even more. Atticus Finch's shining moments are of course the court room scenes, which, unfortunately, are rather condensed in the film. They almost play out like a summary of what was in the novel. Still, they are absolutely fantastic to watch and the final speech followed by Finch's exit from the courtroom are very powerful.
The two Mockingbirds in the story, the black man that is on trial Tom Robinson and the recluse neighbour Boo Radley are flip sides of the same coin. They are good men that have had bad things happen to them. What impressed me was that that motif actually played out really well in the film. As juxtaposed as they are, the film still manages to connect them the way Lee did in her novel.
What I missed was a wider perspective on the subject of racism. It is in the film a rather one sided affair, mainly focussing on the white man's hatred toward the black man. The novel is far more subtle than that and allows for the other side of that story as well. We get much more insight into how the black community regarded and spoke about the white community, always with the central objective eyes of Scout regarding and commenting on them. That layer is completely absent from the film and it is one I would have liked to have seen included.
This is a stunning film, worthy of all the credit it has been given. It definitely deserves a place in the canon for both artistic quality and cultural/historical merit.