This is a review I wrote a couple of months ago but never got round to completing. I’ve given it a quick check and am posting it to prevent creating a backlog for myself. Apologies if it is not up to my usual standard.
Green Book tells the story of a world-class African-American pianist (Dr Don Shirley) going on tour to the Deep South (USA) and the Italian-American bouncer (Tony Vallelonga – a.k.a. Tony Lip) he hires to be his driver/chaperone. Set in the early 1960s, the film tackles the themes of racism and segregation using relative “role-reversal” for the time (the high-class pianist being black and employing a white person). The titular Green Book is a travel book for African-Americans travelling to the Southern states which provides information on safe places to stay and visit for coloured people. The film is based on a true story, real people, and a real guidebook.
The film sets up the two main characters in direct contrast to one another; one being a skilled and sophisticated member of high society, and the other being a working-class bruiser who does what they must to pay the bills. The film goes even further by showing the pianist to be very isolated and alone, only ever showing him talking to his employees during the setup of the film; whilst the bouncer has several scenes with close and extended family, and is even shown to be friendly with several community figures around town (e.g. shopkeepers). At one point our Italian bouncer is even shown to be a bit racist himself. All this is obviously set up to make the eventual coming together of the characters more meaningful and potentially bolster the anti-racism message as the driving force behind the film.
The plot is neatly contained by clearly setting out a 2 month tour the characters are embarking on, and by taking place in a different area of the country entirely makes it easy to avoid plot-holes as the film only needs to follow the journey of the two main characters. Though the story is somewhat predictable given the premise, with increasing challenges gradually bringing the two characters together, Green Book feels like it earns the emotion which comes with this (somewhat overdone) trope. The serious context of the film adds weight to the challenges faced by the main characters which makes the developing friendship between them feel all the more important. As the characters begin to see things from the others perspective, the moments of understanding they share feel so much warmer because of the uncomfortable setting of the film. The uncomfortable context further assists the “unlikely friendship” trope by making these moments more important without making them unbelievable or excessive.
The acting in Green Book felt really on point. It’s somewhat strange mix of using stereotypes whilst also subverting them makes the characters feel genuine but doesn’t take too much time to do so. Buying into stereotype allows the audience to understand a character quickly whilst the film shows the audience the subversions of the stereotype to make the characters three-dimensional. The two main actors (Viggo Mortensen as the bouncer Tony Lip, and Mahershala Ali as the pianist Dr Don Shirley) really carry this film, and boy do they need to given they are on screen for almost the entire time. They are consistent in their delivery and mannerisms, and the moments when the characters “break” or change in some way flows with the context and feels earned by the story. The rest of the cast effectively develop scenes and provide meaning to the actions of the main two without overstepping their mark or trying to shift the spotlight. There are very few moments in the film which feel out of place, which is a testimony to both the actors and the writers.
I was particularly impressed with the small parts played by club owners of the Southern states as they treat the polite and pleasant pianist as simultaneously a guest of honour and a second-class citizen, without seeing any fault in their actions. These small parts are really well done and perfectly exemplify the issues the movie is addressing.
The comedy within the film is really well done as it doesn’t detract from the serious message behind the film. The comedic moments which use race directly are only ever between the main two characters and are used as a plot device to show Tony’s character development. These comedic moments are particularly well written because they are only funny to the audience; by which I mean the characters are taking the situation seriously (even if light-heartedly) but they are clearly meant to be funny moments to help digest the heavy background of the film. Similarly, the writing of this film is generally well done, every action and line makes sense in context and even the moments which appear convenient or out-of-place serve some purpose or have been set up previously. Any time I thought I had spotted something strange something else would happen in the same scene to make it make sense again.
Briefly on cinematography, Green Book made good use of its cinematography. While it doesn’t do anything particularly unique, it makes good use of the camera shots and zooms to reveal information or portray scenes in certain ways. Though there were a few “artsy” shots it never felt pretentious, though I’m sure a film student could write an essay on the use of shadow in some scenes. Audio queues were used really well, there are a few obvious moments where the music is used to portray the mood of a scene, and even a couple of times the music provides the comedy. As a film about a pianist, it makes sense for music to play a key role in significant moments but it always feels like the music is adding to the action and never taking over it. This is one of the first times I can say I noticed the audio queues and they were used excellently.
I thoroughly enjoyed Green Book and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a character-driven drama. Though the setting of the film can be a somewhat touchy subject, I felt the theme was handled in a respectful but realistic manner – though admittedly I have not experienced anything similar myself.
- Cinematography – 9/10
- Plot – 8/10
- Acting – 9/10
- Script – 9/10
- Enjoyment* – 9/10
OVERALL – 8.8/10
*Enjoyment is a personal measure of how much I enjoyed the film, more of a “gut feeling” than the empirical approach I try to take with the other ratings.