LIFF28: Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’ or (‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’)

By January 2, 2015

Film, TV & Tech. Leeds.

[Image courtesy of Leeds Film]

With this year’s film award season getting underway, websites and magazines everywhere are beginning to compile their ‘most likely to win’ lists. Now, 2014 has definitely seen a strong and varied selection of movies, each of which have their own particular strengths that just might win them an award or two. However, there’s one film that looks set to dominate the season and take a prize from every category: Alejandro Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’ or (‘The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance’).

‘Birdman’ tells the story of actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a man whose work in the 80’s in the ‘Birdman’ trilogy brought him international fame. However, since then his career has taken a nosedive, and in an attempt to claw back some fame and establish himself as a serious artist, Thomson decides to put on a Broadway play. Along the way he has to deal with arrogant co-stars, family troubles, and his own crippling doubts as to whether or not he’s a fraud.

As soon as the film begins it becomes clear that ‘Birdman’ is something special.
From the first shot of Keaton floating in his dressing room right through to the end, the film unfurls in one long uninterrupted tracking shot. Not only is this visually impressive, it changes the tone of the film from cinematic to something almost theatrical. The absence of noticeable cuts gives ‘Birdman’ the feeling of watching a play rather than a film, which is both fitting given its subject material and a technique that brings us in more closely to the characters.
Alongside this visual style, the other main talking point of ‘Birdman’ has been the strength of its performances. Keaton is absolutely brilliant in the leading role, managing to effortlessly portray all the subtle nuances that the character demands. Riggan is both likable and smarmy, an egotist and a hollow, broken man. It’s already being lauded as something of a career comeback for him, which is fitting given the film’s subject material. Make no mistakes, ‘Birdman’ is very much a character-driven piece of film, and it’s really hard to picture it being anywhere near as good with any other actor in the role.

Keaton’s co-stars are equally strong, with Ed Norton in particular standing out as the stubborn and egotistical Mike Shiner. It’s nice too to see Zach Galifianakis playing against type, cast here as a well-meaning personal assistant for Keaton, as well as Emma Stone as the sole voice of reason in Riggan’s life as the pressures of theatre begin to eat away at him.

There are a couple of very minor technical issues with the film. For instance, some of the dialogue can be difficult to hear, either because it is drowned out by the soundtrack or because the actors are occasionally guilty of mumbling their lines. Keaton in particular is susceptible to this, and in several of his quieter, more self-reflexive scenes, he can be downright unintelligible.

The soundtrack too is an issue that might prove divisive. For the most part, it is made up purely of drumming, and while this helps add to the character of the film, it’s easy to see how some might have preferred a more traditional score. However, all things considered the positives on show in ‘Birdman’ far outweigh these minor flaws, and it will be surprising if the film manages to make through the winter without a handful of awards to its name.

Adam Button

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