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USA 2003
Directed by
Patty Jenkins
109 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
5 stars

Monster

Synopsis: Born in Michigan in 1956, Aileen “Lee’ Wuornos was abandoned by her mother as an infant. Her father, a convicted child molester, committed suicide in prison. Pregnant at 14, as the result of a rape, she became a prostitute at 15. In October 2002 she was executed for killing 6 men. This is her story.

Anyone who saw Charlize Theron accept the Academy Award for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos will probably want some kind of affidavit stating that it really was her in this film. On the visible evidence the svelte starlet that Billy Crystal was duly drooling over and the raw, belligerent protagonist of Monster could not have been the same person. In changing from starlet to street prostitute Theron has been willing to completely abandon the glamorous image that is an inextricable part of the Hollywood dream factory - we are definitely not talking Pretty Woman here. Remarkable as this physical transformation is, it is a somewhat superfluous and distracting consideration as the contrast between the familiar and the strange is, strictly speaking, extrinsic to Ms. Theron's remarkable  performance. Had an unknown, plain-looking woman played the part there would not be anything like the same degree of incredulity.

Ms Theron no doubt was right to thank her make-up people but the power of her performance was not the result of paint and powder or prosthetics but rather a remarkable transmutation of Jekyll and Hyde proportions. There is perhaps a key here. Reflecting on Oscar-winning women whose performances come anywhere close to that of Ms Theron, Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999) and Jodie Foster (The Accused, 1988) come to mind. All three portrayed women who had been raped. We can add to this list the Oscar-nominated Jessica Lange in Frances, another rape victim and another fact-based story. Perhaps in addressing the violation of a woman’s being at the individual and, symptomatically, at a societal level these actresses found something vitally important to say in their work.

Whatever the inspiration or motivation, Charlize Theron delivers up the most extraordinary performance onscreen I can recall, by a woman or a man. Her Aileen Wuornos is a monster. A monster in the sense of a mis-shapen creature, one so alien to ordinary people that she has to live beyond their world and can only emerge at night to fulfil the sole purpose permitted her. Yet she is also a human being with the same needs and hopes as those people from whom she is ostracised. Ms Theron brings us whole the tragedy and destructiveness of this abused, frightening and desperately lonely woman. Christina Ricci also deserves recognition for her perfectly in-synch supporting performance.

Credit must go too to writer and first-time director Patty Jenkins for bringing Aileen Wuornos’s story to the screen so deftly. She spent time with Wuornos prior to the latter’s execution and had access to her letters, extracts from which she used for the voice-over narrative. Jenkins has managed to both create a completely credible portrait of Wuornos without either belittling or romanticising her or exploiting her crimes for vicarious thrills and also to air the ethical issues which her case raises without being intrusively didactic or tendentious. Whilst staying within the conventions of narrative cinema the film functions non-voyeuristically as a window on real life – the highest aim of many masters of the art of cinema.

In any art form, music, painting, literature and so on, very occasionally one is so struck by a work, as to want to personally thank its creator. This is one such occasion, even if in its harrowing verisimilitude Monster is a difficult film to watch.

 

 

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