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Ordinary People

September 6, 2010

Ordinary People (1980)
Director: Robert Redford
Actors: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore

Synopsis: The three remaining members of the Jarrett family (Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore) are all coping in different ways with the death of the eldest son in the family. Alas, things come to a head when Conrad (Hutton) begins to receive some therapy.

Review: Posterity hasn’t been too kind to Ordinary People, but I’d actually rank it as one of the most underrated treasures in American cinema of the last three decades. If it had been made by a leading auteur of European or Asian cinema it would be hailed as a masterpiece, but I think there’s a bit of inherent snobbery because it was a directorial debut from a leading, mainstream actor (surely they’re not allowed to be that good at a first attempt?), and it’s eternally cursed by Martin Scorsese acolytes who resent Ordinary People for denying Raging Bull the main award at the 1981 Academy Awards. In truth, Ordinary People is a cinematic marvel, with every element – the material, direction, acting and music – combining for a near-perfect end-result. Redford’s input as director is particularly key: the highly emotive subject matter could easily have been maltreated by a more excitable filmmaker, but Redford handles the story with quiet authority. His camerawork is sensitive and literate, and the opening sequence where the camera fades through Autumnal scenes of deceptive serenity, sets the tone adroitly for his middle-class American milieu. An equally canny technique is his spare, but highly emotive use of elegiac flashbacks, reflecting the innermost musings of his troubled lead characters at key moments. The acting is equally pitch-perfect: neither too theatrically heightened, nor overly internalised, it is simply wonderfully naturalistic and ‘felt’. All of the actors, both lead and support, deserve immense credit for their generous performances, but two, in particular, really stand out. Timothy Hutton, in an incredibly difficult and taxing role as the troubled son, is absolutely superb and centres the film. Equally, Donald Sutherland’s growing melancholic presence as the father who gradually realises the irrevocable splinters in his family-life, is a deeply moving portrayal. (October 2006)

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