A-list movie star Angelina Jolie has “embraced her bizarre and silliness” to play the malevolent fairy in Maleficent. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw reports.
Maleficent doesn’t feel like a valedictory statement but given Angelina Jolie’s openly declared wish to switch to directing it may well be the beginning of the end of her time on screen.
It’s also an ambition fulfilled. What’s more the 38-year-old has seen the traditional fairytale of Sleeping Beauty/Princess Aurora sufficiently rewritten to reflect her own feelings and emotions. And mother love is arguably the strongest bond of all.
There was a time when Jolie was just so much eye candy. She was the screen’s newest bad girl and the stories about her behaviour abounded.
Post-coital accidents in bed involving knives. Marriage to husband number two with each party wearing phials of the other’s blood around their necks. Very public fallings out with relatives, not least dad Jon Voight. And accusations – which she later countered – that she was involved in an incestuous affair with her brother. One thing’s for certain: Angelina Jolie has never been short of publicity.
But she’s changed. Motherhood was the start. Then a trip to Cambodia fired her humanitarian interests. Most recently the death of her mother from cancer aged just 56 prompted Jolie to opt for a preventative double mastectomy. Only now is she emerging from it all.
In Maleficent she brings to life the classic evil fairy. But, she says, it’s much more than just a simple tale of good and evil.
“I wasn’t into fairy tales when I was little,” says this most singular daughter, wife and mother of six.
“The princesses [in Disney’s films] were not characters that I looked up to or identified with. The side of the fairytale I don’t like is this idea that there are happy endings, that there’s just good and evil and things are perfect.
“When there’s a good story for children it has a good sense of a moral tale. That’s what I try to teach my kids and what we tried to do with this film.”
In this new film the character of Maleficent is given a makeover. She has horns, enormous wings and nails that would give Louis Cyphre – Robert De Niro’s nimble-fingered devil in Angel Heart – pause for thought.
And she’s driven by a thirst for revenge against someone she once held dear, and who betrayed her. Playing an arch villain – even one whose effect has been tempered by screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who wrote The Lion King – meant digging into the actor’s arsenal but avoiding the obvious weaponry.
What it did throw up was the possibility to explore the accents. And of course the route Jolie chose was English, gothic and the Maggie Smith school of cunning malevolence.
“It was so much fun,” she admits with restrained glee. “It was hard at first. I was so afraid to do it because [the animated version from 1959, with Eleanor Audley as the voice of Maleficent] was done so perfectly. I thought she was so cool when I was young – elegant and powerful and such a great voice. As an actress I do film; I don’t do theatre so I don’t naturally have that voice and I’m not used to that kind of performing.
“I had to embrace my bizarre and my silliness. It’s a beautiful story – there’s a lot of depth to it – but we got a little crazy and had a lot of fun. I hope that resonates. With this performance I wanted to entertain and I hope we did.”
Entertaining it most certainly is, though like Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland this is a skewed version of the old tale. Jolie defends it to the hilt.
“How [can] you possibly make a film where the central character curses a baby and in any way make that appealing? Linda Woolverton really wanted to back up the story and understand how she became evil. I think that’s a really interesting thing to do and to question human nature.
“There’s a lot in this film that we hope answers for people that love the original but then again we wanted to make it more for modern audiences where it goes deeper.
“There are more complex characters and their relationships are more complicated. So we hope it’s not just a new spin. We hope it’s updated it to make it more meaningful and give it more resonance today.”
One element that resonated a little too much as the look of Maleficent herself. Consequently for a sequence in which the aloof, haughty and imposing fairy has to be greeted by an adoring child Jolie found herself relying on her own daughter, five-year-old Vivienne. The reason, says the star, was expediency.
“We have never intended – and we still don’t – to put our children in film. The reason we needed to put Vivienne in the film was because there was a [sequence] when Aurora is five and she has to not see me as a demon.
“All the little kids who came to the set – crew members would bring their children –would see me and they would be terrified.
“They would cry or they would freeze. They certainly couldn’t do a scene with me so it was genuinely out of necessity that it had to be Vivienne. The idea that she’s in a movie is still funny to her Mom and Dad.”
And so to the future. Jolie’s next film is Unbroken, the story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini and his wartime experiences.
She directs rising British actor Jack O’Connell as the escaped PoW who endured weeks on a life raft. Is directing the road she will travel from now on?
“Acting is going to be taking more of a back seat. I’ve had a wonderful career and I’m very happy to have had all the opportunities to tell stories and work for as long as I have. I’m sure there will be a few more films [to act in] but I would like to focus more on writing and directing.”
• Maleficent (PG) is on saturation release.