All the King's Men (2006)

4/5

USA; Steven Zaillian

Parental Guidance – Violence; Mild Language

 

The movie, based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel, charts the rise to power and ultimately shocking demise of a charismatic political leader, Willie Stark (Sean Penn), as seen through the eyes of his personal aid, Jack Burden (Jude Law). Loosely based on real-life politician Huey Pierce Long – nicknamed The Kingfish – Stark is a magnetic political creature, a demagogue and a miniature dictator whose raw, brutish charm outweighs his lack of education. But behind the verbal violence lies a truly compelling and honest vision and Jack is won over. This also follows Jack’s battle, as he and his childhood love Anne (Kate Winslet) struggle to leave behind the ghosts of a shared past and drift away from that irremediably lost paradise as new times dawn. In the wake of a series of failed romantic attempts, Anne becomes Stark’s mistress, much to Jack’s distress. But while he is sane or cynical enough to take the news with calm, there are some who are not.

All the King’s Men is less an analysis of the political mind or a portrait by proxy of a fascinating, larger-than-life personality than a layered and complex period drama, blending elements of melodrama with political and historical considerations. There lays, perhaps, its limitations. The film never truly engages on a cerebral level, and the strings pulled to trigger an emotional response from the audience are often too evident. But the ensemble does work, tightening its grip as the story unfolds and new layers of meaning surface.

Zaillian’s camera is at once elegant and voracious, searching for glimmers of poesy and beauty in the darkest places. Despite the obtrusive voice-over artificially spelling out the characters’ emotions, Willie Stark and Jack Burden’s fates are eloquent, poignant and often nothing short of operatic. Sean Penn, particularly, shines out with a peculiar, powerful turn as the unconventional politician, allowing the idealism, the slyness and the lust (for power or women) to emerge behind his public persona’s awkward grandiloquence and histrionics.

All the King’s Men is far from perfect, but this modest motion picture is not only enthralling and dramatically satisfying – it’s also, owing to a potent central performance, one hell of a ride. 

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