Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 4 February (11.45 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

Clint sure knows how to pick ’em. I remember reading John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a couple of years after it was published and loving its part travelogue, part murder story structure, as did many people judging from the number of weeks it spent on the New York Times Bestseller List. As a fan of true crime, ‘factional’ books at the time (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was another title I adored), it was an instant classic and also came across as resolutely impossible to adapt for the screen – the highest number of eccentric characters this side of Twin Peaks, so many pages dwelling on the sun-soaked delights of Savannah, Georgia, clearly a world removed from the author’s city living in the Big Apple.

And so it’s to Mr Eastwood’s credit that he took it on, retained much of the book’s essence and stuck with the eyewitness perspective of telling it from the the point of view of John Cusack’s visiting journalist, John Kelso. Bits were changed, characters excised or amended, the book’s four murder trials were reduced to a decisive one, a romantic subplot was shoehorned in. Fans of Berendt’s work were horrified by some of the elements that had been lost in translation and the film was a box office bomb, but on its own merits that doesn’t make it a stinker.

The plot follows Kelso, a New York journalist for the socialite magazine Town and Country, who travels to Savannah in order to write about one of the famous Christmas parties hosted by colourful millionaire Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Kelso is instantly struck by the otherworldliness of the city, the old world manners, its unique set of idiosyncratic denizens, for instance the man who walks an invisible dog because he’s paid $15 for doing so even after the mutt has long since passed away. He’s also impressed with Williams, a self-made charming man, though the assignment he’s in town to complete changes to something else entirely when a young man, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), is shot dead by Williams in his home. It emerges the two were lovers and an argument between them turned to violence and then death, so Kelso sticks around, covering Williams’s trial as the material for a book and, in the meantime, meeting more local eccentrics and soaking up the architecture and southern charms of Georgia’s oldest city (it dates back to 1733, when it was founded by the British General, James Oglethorpe).

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a long film, running for over two and a half hours, though the length is a necessity in order to take in the range of characters and get the ‘feel’ of the place. Cusack, through whose eyes we see everything, is a fine ‘fish out of water’, his mouth often hanging agape at the cavalcade of strange sights he witnesses in and around Savannah. Being in the Deep South, there’s still an intangible dabbling in the practice of voodoo magic. Williams takes Kelso with him on a visit to meet Minerva (Irma P Hall), a local spiritualist, the hard-bitten, big city writer scarcely comprehending what’s going on as she starts writhing on Billy’s grave in her attempts to commune with his spirit. The title of the film is derived from something she tells Kelso – either side of midnight is the dead hour, she advises him; the half hour before being for good deeds, evil thereafter.

There’s a nice attempt by the film to capture some of the book’s authenticity, various people from Berendt’s text popping up on the screen. Most prominent amongst these is Lady Chablis (Chablis Deveaux), a drag queen and local stand-up comic who also happened to live with Billy and who Kelso befriends in an attempt to find out more about the young man. Chablis is effectively playing herself, a bawdy presence who has somehow been accepted within a place that seems to thrive on old style manners and still appears to have regrets over the outcome of the American Civil War.

Where it’s less certain is in the attempt to find a love interest for Kelso. Whereas Berendt remained essentially an observer, Kelso is involved prominently in Williams’s trial from the start, actively advising  and helping him whilst falling for Michelle Nicholls (Alison Eastwood), who owns a flower shop. She’s Clint’s daughter, no doubt a lovely presence, but the subplot feels completely superfluous, adding nothing to either the story or the character, and making Kelso look just awkward in his faltering attempts at courtship.

On the surer ground of exploring the intricacies of the trial (it pivots on whether Williams shot Billy in cold blood, or if he was fired at first), Kelso clearly admires the older man and wants him to be acquitted. Spacey is excellent, charming and charismatic, wearing contact lenses throughout to fit Berendt’s description of him as having ‘eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine – he could see out, but you couldn’t see in.’ 1997 was a good year for Spacey. With L.A. Confidential also showcasing his talents, he was making leaps and bounds from the oddball characters he had become renowned for in the likes of Se7en and The Usual Suspects, creating in Williams a man so instantly likeable that Kelso refuses to believe he could simply have murdered Billy.

It’s a strange concoction of a film, on the one hand trying to cosy up to book lovers by possessing much of its spirit whilst adding mainstream elements for cinema audiences. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, adapting the book as a straightforward documentary might have made it more of a success. Then again, the film contains such a strange assortment of characters that it’s impossible not on some level to be charmed and intrigued by it. The sight of veteran actor and occasional Eastwood collaborator, Geoffrey Lewis, playing a man who attaches flies to strings and lets them buzz around his shirt whilst carrying a bottle that, legend has it, he could use at any moment to poison the city’s water supply, needs to be seen to be believed.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: ***

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11 Replies to “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)”

  1. hello there FOTB. I absolutely adore this film. This is drawn from the larger than life characters that pepper the tale from the very beginning.
    You get the initial general feeling of John Kelso’s confusion when arriving amidst the local eccentrics to his ‘go with the flow’ attitude as our story unfolds. The book is magnificent and well worth a read and the film does a fine job of bringing it to life. The only thing the film can’t convey is the heat of a Savannah afternoon. I would give it **** personally as it is a great role for Mr John Cusack.

    1. Thanks Mrs! Personally I might have preferred it without the Cusack character altogether, just the camera objectively peering at the antics of Savannah’s eccentric characters, but he’s okay. True about the heat, of which much was made in the book.

  2. I never read the book but have heard the film wasn’t commercially successful, though that doesn’t necessarily mean much.
    I’m pretty sure I have an unwatched copy of the film somewhere in the apartment – must see if I can find it.

    1. Thanks Colin. The film’s length is a put-off (it doesn’t exactly run on suspense, more the likeability of the characters) and it’s slow going in places, but Spacey’s great and there aren’t many films like it. The 2.5 hours represents a commitment though, the best part of an evening. I can’t blame anyone for not rushing in to give up that amount of time.

      1. I think that’s about it, Mike. I bought the film a few years back and then buried somewhere in those heaving shelves of mine with the intention of watching it when I had the time – I do want to get round to it though.

  3. Sounds like the kind of film one doesn’t necessarily love, but is glad to have seen nonetheless. Your Twin Peaks comparison has particularly piqued my interest.

    I recorded it last night, so will get round to watching it sometime between tomorrow and the end of days.

    1. At first I read that as sometime between tomorrow and the end of the day and thought, wow, you’re really intrigued, but ‘the end of days’ sounds a bit more like it. It’s certainly out of the ordinary, but again that running time is no mean feat and means a commitment I can imagine a lot of people not wanting to make. Thanks Bob.

      1. After I sent it, I did think I should’ve used another apocalyptic term in that context!

        It’s funny: having watched the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai in the last couple of years, and the extended Kingdom of Heaven last month, and with the increasing length of blockbusters (thanks Peter Jackson & Chris Nolan), 2½ hours doesn’t even sound long to me anymore!

      2. No I suppose not (I’m yet to take on the Samurai as well, despite various screening sources making it available to watch any time). Lawrence is certainly worth the investment though, despite the hefty chunk of life it consumes.

        My latest long runner was Judgement at Nuremberg, which was brilliant and the three hours flew by!

      3. Ah, another that’s on my shelf awaiting some attention. It’s all about the quality, isn’t it? A well-made (or, perhaps more importantly, well-paced) 3 hours will whizz past, while a poor 90 minutes can feel interminable.

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