Harper Lee’s much-loved 1960 novel is a beautiful depiction of a childhood in the southern United States in the 1930s, a passionate accusation of racism and injustice – and a white-savior tale in which black voices are subdued.
This 2018 version by the famous screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tackles it directly. A Broadway hit in Trump’s America now feels scorching relevant after the pandemic wave of Black lives matter and the killing on George Floyd.
Atticus Finch, one of fiction’s most famous lawyers, had to overcome legal challenges from the Lee estate to get on stage in this re-creation.
What Sorkin and director Bartlett Sher achieve, however, is a vital rebalancing that examines the story through an aggravating modern lens. It is not a complete solution: Atticus, charismatically played by Rafe Spall, is still the hero, even though his shortcomings are exposed. Yet it still gives Lee’s well-known narrative real tragic and political weight.
As in the book, we are witnessing events through the eyes of Scouts, Atticus’ bright, curious daughter; Gwyneth Keyworth plays her both as a gamine girl and as a woman questioning her past.
Miriam Buether’s set conjures Maycomb, Alabama out of a disused department store – the courtroom, the porches, the jail and the town square slide in and out as we go through time, its community in denim overalls, cotton dresses, linen suits and straw hats (costumes by Ann Roth) .
Adam Guettel’s score mixes bluesy, folk guitar and church organ.
Most importantly, Sorkin is expanding the roles of African-Americans Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), the field hand falsely accused of rape, and Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete), the finch’s housekeeper.
Both actors are magnificent, challenging Spall’s warm, magnetic Atticus on his naive belief in the neighbors’ inherent goodness, and confronting the horrific reality with pain, rage, and a control born of long, terrible endurance. Owusu’s tense, anxious testimony and Nomvete’s indignant pain, shed in a silent cry, are burningly memorable.
Sorkin and Sher do not stop either because of the ugliness they face. The N-word is used liberally, and while Patrick O’Kane’s Bob Ewell is an evil bully, violent father to Tom’s accuser Mayella (shrill, crushed Poppy Lee Friar), David Sturzaker’s accusation is just as awful.
Harry Redding as the Scout’s brother Jem and David Moorst as their sensitive, damaged friend Dill poignantly present a younger, more angry counterpoint to Atticus’ compromised moral idealism.
The final scenes, when violence threatens the Finch children, feel hurried, though the emergence of the mysterious recluse Boo Radley retains its magical thrill. There are occasionally jarring anachronisms in Sorkin’s dialogue – Atticus improbably uses the term “passive aggressive” – and Lee’s delightful descriptive passages are a victim of his muscular approach.
Otherwise, this is a hugely effective adaptation that not only does the original justice, but where it matters most, improves it.
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