Starring Hilary Swank, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeffery Tambor, Johan Heldenbergh
I didn’t know what to expect from Danish director Bille August’s medical court drama. With no poster, no trailer, no US distribution, it was a gamble to see this one at TIFF. That gamble paid off, as 55 Steps boasts two phenomenal performances, one of which might garner a golden statue. Screenwriter Mark Bruce Rosin doesn’t have a lot of experience in film and the drawback for this drama is the simple minded linear narrative. The performances are the heart of the film, and for that reason the straight forward direction allows the actors to dominate everything on screen. Carter’s performance is so big, loud and enthralling, it elevates this drama beyond just an important cause film.
“I’m only going to wait five minutes,” Colette Hughes (Swank) says to the hospital administration. “Then I am going to call the authorities and tell them you won’t let me see my client.” Mental patient Eleanor Riese (Carter) called the patients’ rights hotline and requested a lawyer. Eleanor simply wants mental hospital doctors to discuss medicine and care with patients instead of forcing treatment upon them. Hughes, who becomes more than just a lawyer to Eleanor, will argue that the dosage given to Riese was excessive and made her more mentally unstable than when she arrived. “Chemical rape” is what Hughes and senior litigator Mort Cohen (Tambor) call it. Even though she can barely walk, speaks funny, and has extensive internal disabilities, Eleanor is a caring, happy person who finds something positive about every day.
The performances are the heart of the film, and for that reason the straight forward direction allows the actors to dominate everything on screen.
Some people called Molly’s Game a fast-paced version of Erin Brockovich (which is apparently the gold standard for female driven movies concerning the law). However, I would argue that 55 Steps is much closer to what the Julia Roberts film accomplished. Swank illustrates the epitome of patience in this role. Patience is difficult, there isn’t a facial expression for it, no mannerisms, or simple way for an actor to convey that to the audience. The two-time Oscar winner expresses well-rehearsed body language here as a workaholic lawyer who puts her own health in jeopardy to fulfill a promise she makes to Eleanor on their first visit. The character building is bottom heavy, reserving much of that information to revive the third after cases are decided and friendship becomes the focal point.
Carter, Tim Burton’s ex, is mostly known for her colorful and eccentric supporting roles in Sweeny Todd or Alice in Wonderland. Her performance as Eleanor is a mentally and physically challenging performance that consumes the actress from head to toe. She must convey a woman that’s mentally disabled on the outside, but fully competent on the inside. She’s absolutely brilliant, and it’s the crowning achievement in her long body off work. It’s also, as far as I am concerned, the front runner for supporting actress this award season, if 55 Steps is released theatrically before years end. The screenplay keeps the focus on the women’s relationship and their parallel struggles. It spares us redundant courtroom drama scenes for more human emotional moments. I guess by the end, it’s more like I Am Sam than anything.
Carter gives a transformative, Oscar worthy supporting performance.