Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton gives a towering performance in a stunning film about a washed-up actor’s seemingly doomed comeback, says


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: ★★★★★

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) follows the escalating struggles of washed-up Hollywood star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), and his seemingly doomed attempts to regain credibility by mounting a pompous Broadway show.

Pressure is present on all sides, particularly from narcissistic co-star Mike (Edward Norton), and Riggan’s damaged, resentful daughter Sam (Emma Stone). As his mental state deteriorates, Riggan is visited by the spectre of his most famous role, Birdman, and things get strange.

Birdman is a departure for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, turning away from his solemn yet powerful dramas, 21 Grams and Babel, and creating something daring and original.

Filmed in what appears to be a single tracking shot, much like Hitchcock’s Rope, Iñárritu’s camera stalks his characters down subdued theatre corridors and lively New York streets, through trippy dream sequences and intimate emotional moments in one fluid movement. It’s a technical blinder, and kudos must be attributed to cinematographer extraordinaire, Emmanuel Lubezki. Of course, it’s all trickery, pieced together seamlessly with brilliant editing, but with some takes lasting up to 20 minutes, the actors have nowhere to hide, and it results in performances that are invested with genuine humanity and gritty realism.

At the centre of the maelstrom is Keaton, carrying the movie with a towering performance that affords him the opportunity to explore emotional depths he’s so rarely had the chance to expose in his previous work. Thomson is a character lost at sea, unaware of who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing. It’s the performance of a lifetime, rightfully nominated by both the BAFTAs and the Oscars. Elsewhere, an impressive Emma Stone is open and honest as Riggan’s damaged daughter, while Edward Norton provides a sublime and frequently hilarious turn as the arrogant and mildly insane actor.

While it could easily have been a simple black comedy about theatrical conceit, Birdman sidesteps expectations and metamorphoses into something more affecting and poignant, with biting satire of Twitter/YouTube culture, deep ruminations on the nature of celebrity and art, and an astute insight into a mind falling apart at the seams.

It’s so rare to find a film that makes you think, feel, laugh and cry all at once, but Birdman does just that, and does so in droves. This is what cinema is all about.

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