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:: Million Dollar Baby

It’s not very often that a film comes along and completely defies your expectations in the way the Million Dollar Baby does. You’re by now familiar with the career change of Clint Eastwood, from marquee actor to topnotch director, but even his films have found a particular predictability of late. Mystic River was one of the most wildly overrated films of last year, substituting melodrama for any real substance, and that followed a string of so-so films like Blood Work and True Crime. However, with this new offering, Clint has taken the thoughtful, considered pace of his best work and combined it with a story that delivers emotionally and lasts with you for hours after you’ve left the cinema.

Clint plays a grizzled boxing trainer, Frankie, who has spent a lifetime grooming fighters at his rundown gym, only to have them jump ship to bigger managers when they become ready for a title shot. Frankie really only has himself to blame; he’s overprotective and emotionally distant. He has an estranged daughter who he writes to on a weekly basis only to have his letters returned to him. One day Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank), a poor, white trash waitress, arrives at his gym and asks him to train her. He very bluntly tells her that she’s too old, too inexperienced and worst of all, she’s a girl. But of course Maggie’s determination soon draws him in and he reluctantly becomes her mentor.

Think you know where this is going? You don’t. Eastwood manages to construct the guise of a typical sports movie but then proceeds to take the film into completely new territory. The familiar boxing archetypes are rendered achingly human thanks to some brilliant performances, but it is mainly his deft directorial touch that allows scenes and moments to develop naturally. The world you enter is real; the characters are devoid of any glamour or tricks that would remind you that you are watching a movie. Morgan Freeman, as the gym caretaker Eddie, narrates the story, but just as an observer. It’s a similar role to the one he played in The Shawshank Redemption, a genuine class act.

It’s hard to say too much more about the film without spoiling it, suffice to say you will not see a grittier performance this year than Hillary Swank’s. She has become so adept at playing fractured, vulnerable characters that it always comes as a shock to see how beautiful is at awards ceremonies. And you better believe that after this role you’ll be seeing her at plenty of those.

Screening on general release.