Short of actually dressing up in a gold statuette costume with a little hole cut in the shiny bald head for her face, and hopping around in each scene with her feet together in a heavy cylindrical base with her name embossed in big letters, Angelina Jolie could not make her career expectations for this film any clearer.

It may be a little flagrant, but now I have to admit it. Jolie does have something, that above-the-title star quality, and she expertly shows it off in this true-life crime melodrama directed by Clint Eastwood, boasting massive emotional scenes, colossal performances, gigantic courtroom climaxes and a pretty hefty running time of two hours and 20 minutes. For all its eccentricities and oddities, it is gutsy storytelling.

Jolie stars as Christine Collins, an unsung figure from American history. A respectable single mother in 1920s Los Angeles, she one day comes home from work to find that her little son, Walter, has gone missing. Already embarrassed by its reputation for incompetence and corruption, the Los Angeles Police Department frantically searches for the boy to give the press a good-news story. But when a little lad is duly pushed into the bewildered woman's arms in front of hordes of reporters, Christine insists that this is not her son. The LAPD, in the form of hatchet-faced Capt JJ Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) and Police Chief James Davis (Colm Feore), arrogantly refuse to admit their mistake, but with the help of a campaigning clergyman, Rev Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), Christine takes on the whole rotten system of lying officialdom. As the mystery of her missing son deepens, Christine faces the chilling fury of an establishment that can't bear to be challenged. Owing to her efforts wrongdoing is exposed, but Christine must now face an awful possibility about what might actually have happened to her child.

There is no original book or magazine article about the Christine Collins case: screenwriter and former journalist J Michael Straczynski developed his story directly from newspaper files and old City Hall records. Truth is stranger than fiction, they say - and harder to compartmentalise. Eastwood's movie starts out as a flapper Erin Brockovich, and then turns into a Silence of the Lambs, by way of LA Confidential. This is a picture with tremendous period detail and a muscular way with telling a story - and this latter quality is never to be taken lightly. The digital recreations of Prohibition-era Los Angeles are terrific and there are moments when it looks like Eastwood has managed to get his cast and crew into a time-machine. The very fact that his film seems to morph from one genre to another is a measure of how unusual this story is. It certainly keeps the audience off balance; there are plenty of surprises.

But there are curious touches and errors of taste, too. When Christine arrives home to find Walter gone, that should surely be a moment of almost unimaginable horror, and to do justice to it, a movie must surely show something of the sheer panic Christine would be going through and induce a little of that panic in us. But the movie keeps a strange lid on the proceedings, and repeatedly deploys a sugary musical theme underneath to say to us: don't feel scared, scared is the wrong emotion for this stage of the film - the keynotes are courage and mother-love.

Then there is the Martin Guerre-type mystery of the changeling: the little boy who claims to be her son. Christine refuses to be bullied by the cops into accepting that he is the real thing. Why couldn't she simply produce a photo? And we know from a vital scene late in the movie that such a photo exists - a photo used specifically for the purpose of identifying Walter. Of course, there may well have been confusion about photographs in the real case, but the audience surely need to have this basic point explained. Finally, Mrs Collins is incarcerated in a psychiatric facility - which will recall Angelina Jolie's rise to prominence in the psychiatric drama Girl, Interrupted - and there are some frankly overripe scenes with cruel nurses dragging out the electric shock machine. It verges on camp.

For all this, it would be obtuse to deny how very watchable this story is and how powerfully and confidently Eastwood socks it over. He handles a big, long picture with directorial calm and strength, and Jolie's performance has the same qualities, along with intelligence and dignity. Simply, Changeling has the considerable advantage of not looking like everything else around. What a bold, virile, operatic piece of film-making from this 78-year-old director. He is now well into a remarkable late period, and I sense we ain't seen nothing yet.

climax – punkt kulminacyjny

compartmentalise – dzielić na odcinki lub rozdziały

deploy – rozmieszczać, rozlokowywać

emboss - wytłaczać

flagrant - rażący

flapper – podlotek, podfruwajka

hefty - soildny

incarcerate - więzić

induce – wywoływać, indukować

obtuse – tępy, głupi

officialdom - biurokracja

overripe – przejrzały

unsung – nieopiewany (np. bohater)

virile – krzepki, męski

wrongdoing – przestępstwo; niewłaściwe postępowanie

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