1 February 2019
A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.
Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
The buildup to festivities feels like the perfect time to see Green Book, so It’s unfortunate that it won’t be hitting UK cinemas until February 2019. It probably won’t ever be recognised as a Christmas film, but there is a certain compatibility between its story of race, acceptance, and friendship with the holiday season. Not to mention the final destination of the plot is Christmas Eve, wrapping up on a cosy, feel-good note. Credit to it as I left the cinema in a festive mood that I’m usually immune to. But whenever you do manage to see Peter Farrelly’s (There’s Something About Mary) Green Book, it’s sure to put a delightful smile on your face.
Based on a true story, Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic, Eastern Promises) is Tony Vallelonga or “Tony Lip”, a New York City bouncer with prejudiced views looking for new employment after the club he works at closes. He answers an interview for a driving position for a doctor, in which he is shocked to find is actually advertised by famed African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali; Moonlight, Hidden Figures). After initially clashing Tony is hired because of his reputation at fixing problems, and is tasked with getting Don Shirley to all of his shows through the deep south on time without issue. His only guide is a copy of the “Green Book”, written to help black Americans find safe accommodation in the segregated states.
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Green Book has been gaining traction and praise on the festival circuit, winning the peoples choice award at Toronto as well as many Best Film awards at various other festivals. Just a few days ago it was revealed to be nominated for 5 Golden Globes. But it was a surprise to me at just how mainstream the film feels. I mean that in the most positive way because it’s a real crowd pleaser, but features enough nuance to genuinely move you and keep you engaged. What’s also refreshing is it never feels like it’s baiting awards. For the most part, the film plays like a gentle comedy as we experience the blossoming relationship between the two opposite men on their road trip. Whilst the subject matter is inherently dealing with serious issues, which unearths some biting drama, Farrelly successfully engages the racial issues in a family-suitable way without watering anything down thanks to the strong foundation of the script.
Mortensen and Ali are equally terrific and their chemistry together is nothing short of superb. Mortensen’s no-nonsense, stubborn Tony has a heart of gold despite his prejudices. He loves his family, indulges heavily in food and is proud to be known as a great bullshit artist. On the contrary, Ali plays Don Shirley as an isolated but extremely sophisticated and assured gentleman. Controlling and precise, but vulnerable when faced with the fact that he’s too black to be white, and too white to be black. Together, they bounce off each other so naturally and often produce both touching and hilarious results. The supporting cast from the likes of Linda Cardellini and Dimiter D. Marinov do a fine job also, but the film largely belongs to the two leads.
It can be argued that Green Book is a very predictable film, which is something I mostly agree with. But even when the film tips over into “fluffy happy ending” territory eventually, its sincerity makes it feel well earned, making it difficult to take issue with. It might not end up feeling like a particularly intellectual or deep experience, but one of joy and positivity instead.
The music by Kris Bowers is left in the background and is largely unmemorable. It occasionally still manages to enhance the more dramatic scenes but isn’t the focus. The films use of licensed music is more front and centre, providing the comfortable drive from 1960s New York to the southern countryside with catchy tunes from Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. It nicely sets the period and compliments the classical pianist songs performed by Don Shirley, whilst also providing something for the characters to bond over.
After it’s through Green Book feels like a relaxed, heartwarming journey that you’d happily experience again. It’s a story to see during the chill this time of year brings. Any slight flaws are all but forgotten as it’s earnest performances and well-handled story win you over.
Green Book hits UK cinemas in wide release February 1st 2019
Finely balanced and accessible to everyone
Mortensen and Ali are terrific
Will leave a smile on your face
Arguably over-sentimental ending