Dir. Alan Parker, 2003, US, 130 mins
Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra
When Schindler's List arrived on our screens, there were scenes that defied belief. Not the nazi atrocities - that goes without saying - but the sentimental touches (like the moment when Schindler breaks down and wishes he'd sold his ring in order to save more lives) and contrived neatness to the narrative that, had this not been a true story, could have been slapped on with the subtlety of a ten-pound trowel. The fact that Schindler is a true story, despite poetic licence, allows the suspension of disbelief and we indulge the film's conceit. Biopics and true-life tales are, by their nature, meant to be flawed.
Had The Life of David Gale been based on true events then this, too, would have been a great film. Except it's not a true story. It was a script that had been gathering dust on the shelves at Warner Brothers since 1998 when Nicolas Cage's production company commissioned it. Its writer was Charles Randolph, a professor of philosophy at a Vienna university. When director Alan Parker picked it up, he admits that he felt as drawn to its aspects as a thriller as to its political issues.
David Gale (Kevin Spacey), a philosophy professor, is a renowned campaigner against the death penalty. When he finds himself facing his own execution for the rape and murder of a colleague, Constance (Laura Linney) he sanctions three interviews with high-principled reporter, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). Gale says he was set up. Is he telling the truth?
All good films are multi-layered, but somehow the marriage of this commercial thriller coupled with right-on activist pointmaker doesn't ring true, even though it should. The film is a bit of 'duck-rabbit' - look at it this way and it's an edge-of-the-seat nailgripper; look at it the other and it's a thought-provoking meditation on the issue of capital punishment. Put them together and one can't help feeling just a little bit cheated which, given that the storyline is dependent on deception, is perhaps not wholly inappropriate. For that reason Spacey, the master of ambiguous sincerity, is perfectly cast, although the role does little to showcase his acting talents. However, Winslet's supposedly hard-hitting journalist is far too gullible, emotional, and unquestioning to have gone so far in her chosen career. The faults lie with the blatantly contrived script rather than with Winslet's performance.
There is also a question mark over the pacing of the plot. In most films with a 'twist', the audience senses the build-up of events along with the characters. With David Gale, the audience is way ahead of them. That's not to say you'll guess the denouement, but you'll know that something is coming and you'll marvel at Winslet's stupidity in not seeing it too, particularly for a hack who's supposed to be that good.