On the Silver Screen – The Giver
Phillip Noyce directs The Giver, an adaptation of the Lois Lowry novel of the same name. In a seemingly perfect society where there is no war or conflict of any kind, no pain or suffering at the expense of choice; a young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen to take on the role of “receiver of memory” which basically has him be the only person allowed access to all of the things sacrificed to build this perfect conflict free Utopia. Jonas is under the direction of the receiver her is mandated to replace known to him as The Giver (Jeff Bridges). Before anyone points it out, I’m not unaware of the jokes that stem from the terms giver and receiver but I’ll try not to stoop to that level in this review.
On the surface this may seem like another half assed adaptation of a young adult novel and it kind of is. Written in 1993, The Giver is something of the template to all of the similar Dystopian stories seemingly focusing on teenagers so the fact that this comes so late in the release of similar stories is surprising. This particular adaptation does a pretty good job of building the world and setting up the characters. As Dystopias go I found this one to be fairly fascinating. I really like the idea of all ambiguity being lifted through “precision of speech” as well as meaningless platitudes replacing complex emotions all in favour of a stable society. This Dystopia seems a little different as it appears to be a Utopia on the surface but the reality is something far more sinister. I like the idea of the characters not realising that their society is corrupt and flawed.
Thwaites plays Jonas as being completely naive and clearly programmed to think in a certain way, something that applies to every character presented in the film. Jonas is the only character in the film who has a defined character arc which fits the story world perfectly. Through his interactions with The Giver he learns more about how the world used to be but gets something of a skewed view to begin with when he’s only shown the positive and beautiful elements of the world that was left behind causing him to question why any of it was allowed to be cast aside. When he is shown the darker side of the past he begins to realise why things have been forgotten and question his identity as a human being since historically the species was capable of so much death and destruction.
The transition from naivety to understanding is handled pretty well. I like that he tries to share all the beauty with his friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) when he has no context for hit and ends up confusing her due to her lifetime of conditioning and drugs colouring her thinking. Rush is actually pretty good in this role, playing the naivety and confusion really well as well as the fear and uncertainty coupled with wonder the more she learns from Jonas. There is a romance that feels completely tacked on and is absolutely there because these films have to have one, it would be an improvement if it was completely left out.
Jeff Bridges delivers a fantastic performance as The Giver, portraying a man who has struggled with the burden of this knowledge for many years. His face and voice are always heavy with regret and melancholy with multiple references to the time he failed the previous receiver some years prior. Every word he says is from the benefit of knowledge and experience showing that he understands all of the knowledge that he is in charge of protecting. His understanding has made him bitter while being a little hopeful which creates an interesting mentor relationship with Jonas.
Meryl Streep is an excellent villain with her unsettlingly pleasant demeanour always coming across as incredibly sinister. Every scene she has where she interacts with someone else reeks of villainous subtext as she clearly will do anything to preserve the status quo of the society. Most of her true intentions are implied but her layered performance portrays this wonderfully, made better by the fact that everyone around her is oblivious of what she’s up to due to the rules of the society not allowing them to consider deceit as an option.
There’s a couple of interesting choices in showing the inherent problems in this society. Since people have no context to base their concepts of right and wrong as well as other aspects of morality it allows horrible acts to be carried out rather clinically, best shown by a scene where an underdeveloped baby is casually euthanised which elicits shock from Jonas who is beginning to understand but has no reaction from his father (Alexander Skarsgård). Also, the film starts out as being completely black and white because life is stripped down so completely that people lack the capacity to see colours. The more Jonas understands, the more colourful the film becomes, starting off with muted colours and eventually building up to being vibrant. As visuals go it’s a little obvious but it’s used effectively enough and gives a quick visual guide to the levels of Jonas’ education throughout the film.
Jonas’ relationship with The Giver is at the heart of the film’s narrative so it is a shame that it feels like it goes from them meeting to them being really close in what seems like no time at all. I feel that more time could have been spent fleshing out their relationship and showing it building to the levels of mutual trust and respect that the film tells us exist, unfortunately it’s just not really seen in the film. Another issue the film has is that the attempts at action scenes are embarrassing, there’s not much action in the film anyway which is fine but when it is attempted it’s just bland and sloppily executed.
An interesting look at yet another Dystopian society focused on children. This one is a bit different as it seems to be more sinister in that everyone feels that they are living in a Utopia. Jeff Bridges gives a great performance as the title character and the rest of the cast fill their roles nicely. The society is nicely built up and the characters all feel well realised. Better action scenes and a fuller relationship between The Giver and The Receiver would have made this an all around better experience but it’s certainly better than Divergent, Twilight or the first Hunger Games movie.