For a long while, StinkyLulu's been inclined to think of Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart as the "Angie does brownface" movie. The whole docudramatic premise -- a "ripped from the headlines" story of a woman waiting to hear that her missing husband's been brutally murdered -- seemed possibly well-intentioned but just, oh, tacky and self-important. (Sorta like StinkyLulu's baseline opinion of Angelina Jolie, but that's another post, for another time.) So 'magine Lu's surprise when it turned out that Winterbottom's film version of Mariane Pearl's memoir proved to be a startlingly effective movie. And, much to StinkyLulu's delight, the film worked not in spite of Angelina Jolie's central performance but precisely because of the way the film utilized a top-notch supporting ensemble to maneuver the distractions of Jolie's celebrity. (Not to mention those lips!) As a result, Jolie's performance as Mariane Pearl is simple and, at times, genuinely affecting.
But more interesting are the supporting performances, especially a stark, enigmatic performance by Irfan Khan (as Captain, the Pakistani police official leading the investigation of Daniel Pearl's disappearance) and a noteworthy turn by Archie Panjabi as Daniel Pearl's longtime friend and colleague, the Indian Muslim feminist Asra Q. Nomani. Of course, Khan's Captain is given a pile of plot to muck through, and Khan's measured intensity here blends with an emotional generosity (the kind he gave this year's The Namesake) in all kinds of scenes. Panjabi's Asra, on the other hand, is given next to nothing to do -- except answer phones, print photos, shuffle papers, and write on the whiteboard. But Panjabi, too, even in this helpmeet of a part, delivers a formidable performance as a woman cruelly disregarded as her life, too, is tossed into complete upheaval with Danny Pearl's disappearance.
Panjabi's work (literally, her actressing at the edges) is crucial to Winterbottom's construction of this film. It seems that Winterbottom -- charged with making a movie about a missing man starring one of the most conspicuously polarizing contemporary celebrities -- determined to tell this story through oblique angles. Winterbottom rarely shoots Jolie's Mariane straight on, opting instead to capture Jolie's face in profile or at 3/4 angles. Indeed, the child of the houseservants (whose playful gestures echo and mirror the action around her) might just have more close-ups than Jolie. And this seems to be Winterbottom's point. Winterbottom's movie is not about Mariane or Daniel -- but about the experience of being in the midst of an unknowable terror storm, where the actions of everyone around you become charged with potential meaning, significance, import.
And Panjabi's Asra is perhaps the most essential presence in this cinematic storm -- the only one in the room we know to trust unconditionally, the one to whom we look for hints, for cues, for explanations. With every glimpse and glance, Panjabi's performance presents a precise portrait of a complicated woman negotiating uncharted territory. Hers is the kind of performance that will likely never receive much notice, let alone a nomination, largely because the role itself seems so peripheral (as Nomani herself has scathingly alleged). But Winterbottom seems to know what he's doing, and he clearly knows what he has in Panjabi's performance. His careful attention to Panjabi's presence on the scene (as well as Khan's, and Denis O'Hare's, and pretty much every cast member's) provides a reminder that Daniel Pearl's disappearance, his absence, consolidated a meaningful and powerful community.
Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart is perhaps the most evocative cinematic treatment of traumatic loss I've ever encountered (not to mention one of the strangest surprises of 2007). And Archie Panjabi's work -- her actressing at the edges -- helps lay the emotional foundation for the film's complexity and its impact.