1999 / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #457: The Green Mile (1999)

In the last post I mentioned how Morgan Freeman’s participation in Million Dollar Baby was partly to do with the fact that he could provide a similarly stirring voiceover to the one he delivered in The Shawshank Redemption. That film also has a lot in common with our next nominee The Green Mile, not least because it has the same director in Frank Darabont and is based on a novel by Steven King.

In addition The Green Mile is also set in a prison, albeit a small one on death row in which several inmates await the electric chair. The story is narrated by Paul Edgecomb, who was a guard on death row in the 1930s and is currently living in a retirement home. In a nice little bit of symmetry, the first film I ever watched for the challenge; Top Hat, is referenced several times throughout The Green Mile. The film itself gets the title from the colour of tarpaulin that the prisoners walk their final mile on before they get to the chair. The main focus of the story is on the arrival of a new prisoner John Coffey, a mountain of a man who is accused of raping and murdering two young girls. Despite his hulking stature, Coffey has almost a childlike demeanour and is even scared of the dark. As the film goes on it transpires that Coffey has magical powers which allow him to cure Paul of his urinary infection, bring a dead mouse back to life and later remove the brain tumour from the wife of the head guard. I felt that Darabont balanced the fantastical elements of the story nicely with the more unsavoury nature of some of the characters. One thing he does do is set a fine line between the heroes and villains of the piece meaning that there are very few shades of grey in the film. For example both sadistic prison guard Percy and psychopathic inmate ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton are painted as pure villains and neither have any redeeming features to speak of. Both also get their comeuppance at the end of the film with Wharton being revealed as the man who was involved in the crime that Coffey was charged with. What I did like about The Green Mile was its final chapter in which the redemption that happened in Shawshank doesn’t occur for Paul. Instead he has been given almost a curse by Coffey and as a result has had to see his loved ones die gradually over the space of fifty years.

Even though I’ve seen The Green Mile before I didn’t quite remember the ending where we learn just what sort of effect John Coffey had on Paul. I also don’t remember the film being quite as long as it was, just over three hours, however the time seemed to past relatively quickly. The fact that I was never bored is a testament to both Darabont’s direction and his adaptation of King’s source novel. One part of the film I did like was the fact that John Coffey was never overused and his magical powers were littered throughout the film making them more special when they did appear. Instead, Darabont’s focus on the mundane nature of the mile meant that you got a real sense of what it was like to be working on death row. Tom Hanks was the perfect choice to play Paul Edgecomb as he has the everyman quality that the role requires. Hanks is surrounded by a bunch of character actors who play his colleagues including Barry Pepper, David Morse and James Cromwell. I particularly admired Sam Rockwell’s performance as the certifiable Wharton as he added an extra element of crazy to an already deranged character. Meanwhile, Doug Hutchinson did his best to make the audience detest the weasel-like Percy and I felt he pulled it off admirably. However, the best performance for me came from relative newcomer Michael Clarke Duncan, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago. Cinematographer David Tattersall goes to great lengths to capture the size of Duncan on screen but I felt the actor did great at portraying his character’s softer side. Duncan was in fact the only member of the cast to be nominated for his role in a film which also picked up another three nominations. Although at times The Green Mile makes you suspend your disbelief I feel you’re rewarded for doing so by a magical film which is ably written and directed and that contains a number of fine performances.


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