News Of The World

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

News Of The World
"Zengel first came to international attention with her stunning performance in German drama System Crasher, and she's no less electric here."

Inevitably, when two cultures exist in close proximity, there's some crossover between them. During times of war, when everything descends into chaos, this happens all the more. It has been five years since the end of the American Civil War when we meet Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks), a retired soldier who now makes his living travelling between isolated towns to read the newspapers and let them know what's happening in the wider world - and when he meets the girl (Helena Zengel) who has been told her name is Johanna. She was kidnapped from a lonely farmstead some years earlier, her birth parents killed. Now she regards herself as the daughter of Turning Water and Three Spotted, but they, too, have been killed. The Kiowa people are being 'cleared out' of the region, as it is euphemistically put. Johanna is to be delivered to an aunt several hundred miles away - her only living relative.

Zengel first came to international attention with her stunning performance in German drama System Crasher, and she's no less electric here - the perfect choice to play this traumatised, fierce girl who wants no part of white American society. When the Captain finds her, the man who was transporting her has been killed and she is at a loss, begging him to take her to a home that no longer exists. After trying and failing to deposit her with the proper authorities in a society whose infrastructure remains in a battered state, he reluctantly ends up accepting the job of transporting her himself, not being the sort of man to abandon a child among strangers. Over the course of a long and difficult journey they gradually bond and discover that they have more in common with one another than with the world where they once had roots.

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There are no big surprises here but in a well structured western, there shouldn't need to be. Rambling tales like this are the stuff on which frontier country was built. Speaking fluent Kiowa and, to begin with, next to no English or German (the latter having been her parents' language), Johanna loves stories but feels more closely connected to those of a people close to extinction than to the ones white Americans are telling each other about themselves. Within the latter group there are lingering tensions sufficient to inspire assault or murder, the legacy of the war. The Captain is used to getting by using his skills as a storyteller and as a man who can tell people what they want to hear, but when he travels through towns full of dissolute former soldiers, with hardly any women, the presence of a girl a his side attracts new dangers.

There's plenty of ugliness on display here, and Johanna's mourning for the peaceful life she knew with the Kiowa colours everything we see. Viewers will naturally be reminded of John Ford's The Searchers, though here we are looking through different eyes. Hanks, always a generous actor, immerses himself in his character and tones down his natural charisma, making room for Zengel to shine. Both the actors and their characters work beautifully as a team, and not just during the inevitable combat scenes.

The storytelling theme draws into focus the fact that, by increasingly opening itself up to women's stories and young people's stories, America is again reinventing its narrative today. The Captain's tendency to add a bit of colour to the news, to "give people what they want to hear," is a reminder that recent concerns about how we distinguish fact and fiction are nothing new. The broad landscapes captured by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski evoke a sense of the eternal, but in light of how many such areas would subsequently be affected by the killing of the buffalo and the introduction of modern farming methods, that too is an illusion. Perhaps it's only in the telling that any of this becomes real, but Paul Greengrass tells it well.

Reviewed on: 28 Dec 2020
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News Of The World packshot
A Civil War veteran agrees to deliver a girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, against her will.

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writer: Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies

Starring: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel, Steve Boyles

Year: 2020

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: US

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