Directed by Clint Eastwood
Now on release in the US; released on 28 January in the UK
Starring Matt Damon, Cécile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard and Thierry Neuvic
If you see Clint Eastwood's new film Hereafter, whatever else you do, don't miss the first 10 minutes. It is a bravura piece of film-making and almost justifies the bother of sitting through the rest of it. But not quite.
There are three stories in this film. One concerns a French television journalist who, having survived a brush with death, takes time out of her career to come to terms with the experience; another concerns a young boy plunged into grief by the death of his twin brother; and the third features Matt Damon as a psychic attempting to rebuild his life having suffered setbacks arising from his peculiar gift. "A life that's about death is no life at all," he tells his brother. Later he describes his talent as "a curse. It ruins any chance I have at a normal life. I'm a freak!" After nearly two hours of exposition, the three plots converge at the London Book Fair, of all places.
In order to swallow this film whole, you are going to have to accept a number of premises. First, you need to accept that there is such a thing as the afterlife. I hope that's all right, because if you can't go along with that, the film will make you weep with exasperation. Very quickly. Assuming you have no trouble with that, you are also going to need to accept that the "hereafter" contains all the dead people who have ever lived (including Charles Dickens), who are watching us and are capable of intervening in our lives to save us from terrorist incidents. So long as that's in order, it probably won't be too hard to believe that Damon is a psychic - not the kind that uses Ouija boards, but the "real" kind who (by a touch of the hand) can listen to your dead relatives and pass on their remarks. Got it?
If by now you're thinking that this is a load of cobblers, I'm afraid that's much the feeling you're going to have by the time you're half an hour into this very silly film. Well may you wonder how on earth all this battiness came to form the basis of a Clint Eastwood movie. Surprisingly, the script is by the British writer Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), among others. It's a surprise because those movies are disciplined affairs with no spare blubber. Unfortunately, at over two hours, Hereafter is a rambling confection with a very soft centre indeed - soft enough to warrant it being retitled Slop, Squidge or Bring an Umbrella.
Clint has described it as a romance, although not one "that will make men want to stick a Swiss army knife in their leg". Let's face it, self-harm would be an extreme step even for someone trapped at a showing of Hereafter, but I can't guarantee your eyes won't stray longingly towards the emergency exit well before it finishes. Romance isn't Clint's strong suit; his one other disappointment is the wretched The Bridges of Madison County (1995).
Even if you are gullible and/or drippy enough for Hereafter, you won't find it easy to watch. It is shot in gloomy tones; there's little light relief, to put it mildly; and it's very po-faced. These things would be virtues if it had something serious to say, but it doesn't. It is, in fact, a very long shaggy-dog story, but without any dogs, sadly - dogs would at least be amusing. All this must be disappointing for Times Higher Education staff, who were rather excited when part of the film was filmed outside the magazine's offices.
Part of the trouble may be that Steven Spielberg is Hereafter's executive producer, and it reminded me of the mawkishness of ET (1982) and, to some extent, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), another film I hope never to see again. On my walk home from the cinema, I tried to work out why Clint had bothered. He's 80, has made better films and can't be so lacking in judgement as not to see that the plot is pretentious claptrap.
I have an uncomfortable feeling that he isn't lacking in judgement, but Hereafter is just a cynical exercise for all concerned, and that the entire project seeks to cash in, albeit belatedly, on such supernatural blockbusters as The Sixth Sense (1999). Clint Eastwood diehards may enjoy it; the rest of the world would be better advised to stay at home and watch a spaghetti western.