I’m guessing The Da Vinci Code doesn’t figure high on Alexander (About Schmidt, Sideways) Payne’s reading list. Since Election he has made his way with adaptations of well-regarded but little known American novels where nothing much happens.

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Novels big on characterisation rather than action – novels basically that have no place being turned into films.

He has the happy knack of making real films in the guise of Oscar pleasers.

His latest is taken from the novel by Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings. I don’t know if it has any claim towards being The Great Hawaiian novel, but as it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, probably not.

The Descendants is a rather conventional tale of a family reconnecting after a tragedy, the kind of thing that might make for a standard trite star vehicle.

After a boating accident leaves his wife in a coma, lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has to reconnect with his two daughters, and deal with revelations about his relationships.

He is also the sole trustee of valuable real estate, left to his family by his ancestors more than 100 years before, but which they are now legally obliged to sell – a sale which his many, less affluent, relatives are eagerly awaiting.

Payne comes across as a no thrills director. He’s not above using first person narration to ease us into the story and characters, and doesn’t use any showy gestures to further engage, placing his trust in the performers.

He adds substance to slight tales without weighing them down. He’s good with actors, and good with stars too – he can get them to open up and reveal vulnerabilities without sacrificing the qualities audiences enjoy.

That said, I suspect that the character of King is meant to be a slightly more ambiguous than here. Great as he is in the role, casting Clooney does rather wave away any objections anyone might have about King’s behaviour.

Whenever someone suggests that maybe he was a little emotionally distant or a bit of a skinflint you instinctively feel indignant on his behalf – you can’t say that, that’s George Clooney.

THE DESCENDANTS (15)

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges and Robert Forster

Length: 115 mins

****

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