Although not having quite reached the dizzy heights of The Artist, and a little more surprisingly Hugo, The Descendants is electrifyingly pulsating with Oscar Fever. With five nominations, including best picture, best actor (George Clooney) and best director (Alexander Payne), it was with some trepidation then that I went to see The Descendants to see what all the fuss is about. That and because it’s set in Hawaii. It’s a good job that I still had the kitchen towel in my bag that I hadn’t needed with War Horse. With War Horse I had expected to mope a little but I hadn’t. I had no such expectations with The Descendants but by its end I looked as if I’d had my face washed with a big soggy mop.
The Descendants begins with the brief glimpse of a laughing, happy woman water skiing. The next minute we’re thrown into the world of her husband who is having to deal with a wife in a coma from which she is not expected to awake. Matt King is a busy lawyer who also has the responsibility of settling the future of the last of his family’s great land inheritance. Looking at his wife Elizabeth on her sickbed, he realises that he knows his wife almost as little as he knows his rebellious and troubled daughters Scottie aged 10 (Amara Miller) and Alex aged 17 (Shailene Woodley). He soon learns from Alex that his wife was having an affair and was about to leave him. As he tries to cope with this blow and meet the other man, it’s his daughters – and Alex’s surfing dude friend Sid (Nick Krause) – who rally around him and hold him together.
However, far from being sentimental or mawkish or melodramatic, The Descendants is a strong and confident tale told from Matt’s point of view. Matt is a loving man but he is a man who believes that a family’s troubles are private. He is surrounded by a circle of friends and cousins on every island but he keeps the truth from them, only permitting himself brief moments of rage and grief. As a result, they are all the more poignant and moving for it. As are the efforts of Alex to grow up and care for her dad and little sister. Even Sid has his uses (if only as a willing punchbag).
George Clooney is excellent but, to be honest, I didn’t think his name in this film was Matt King. It was George Clooney. Clooney is a fine actor but, for me, it’s more that he places George Clooney in different situations (and, in this case, in bright shirts). Here is George Clooney, the grieving and betrayed husband and the loving but flawed father. He does it brilliantly. Possibly this familiarity makes it all the more real and moving when he lets the feelings through.
Clooney isn’t alone in doing a great job. Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley as his two daughters are likewise good and it’s a jolt to the heart watching them come to terms with their situation. It’s also a pleasure to see Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (doesn’t he sound like his brother?).
It’s not all doom and gloom. Despite the subject matter, their are moments of real levity in the script and I was surprised how much I laughed. The scenery helps, as does the music which complements the story and setting perfectly.
I would argue that it’s not just George Clooney who merits a best actor nomination. The islands of Hawaii do a good job themselves of winning over the viewer, with their skies, stormy and sunny by turn, those white beaches and palm trees, the proud and strong local Hawaiians, the blue rough seas, its mixed cultural history, the ancestors, the descendants and the sounds of surf and song.