News of the World review – newcomer Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks shine in this classic-style Western

News of the World review 2021 film

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel. Directed by Paul Greengrass.

The last time Tom Hanks, venerable movie star and all-round nice guy, and Paul Greengrass, provider of true stories and Bourne films alike made a film, it was the tense ocean-based drama Captain Phillips, which brought Somalian actor Barkhad Abdi to the world stage and granted him much deserved Oscar nominations.

With News of the World, Hanks plays former soldier Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a travelling newsreader who for “ten cents and the desire to listen” will read the news of this here world to those in 1870s USA. On his travels, he finds a German girl whom he believes is called Johanna, abandoned and in need of transport to her only remaining family, and the two share a bond.

Don’t let the title fool you, this is not a historical re-telling of the phone-hacking, hate-spewing shit rag that thankfully came crashing down a few years back; there will be no Rupert Murdoch’s craggy old face or Piers Morgan defending his bile. Instead, this is a Western soaked in the dust and sweat of the era.

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World.

Greengrass, who became noted for his use of the shaky-cam style when he took the reigns of the Jason Bourne movies, reigns it all in on this one. When the action does occur, and it does come at some points, it’s intimate but not as if someone had a seizure while holding the camera. This is a film steeped in the filmmaking of times gone past, and Greengrass pulls back his usual style to bring a more easy-going story.

It’s written by Greengrass and Luke Davies and based on the 2016 novel by Paulette Jiles, and like the source material, it isn’t interested in throwing around slurs to Native Americans or Black people; while it’s a very white person story it isn’t intentionally exclusive, and it’s not telling a story of the wild west per se. Actually, it’s telling the story of one man and his growing discomfort with the world.

Greying and temperate in posture, Hanks is so obviously the right casting choice for this that the character may as well be called Tom Hanks. His movie star charm reminds us that before he spent a decade playing exclusively real people, he was a deeply respected actor for his ability to craft characters from nothing. Kidd is long in the tooth but neither cruel nor soft, he’s insulated from the world after the war. Hanks brings theatricality to his readings of the news but also a softness to his scenes with the young Johanna.

Greengrass has always had an eye for casting new talents, and in the role of German child Johanna the casting of Helena Zengel is a work of pure genius. Zengel is another one of the long line of brilliant child performances brought to the world stage in recent times and if she is to gain awards recognition it’s deserved. There are shades of Mangold’s Logan in the former soldier grizzled by time and the near-mute foreign girl he takes under his wing, but Logan’s brutality is swapped for a more soft touch. Even run-ins with child traffickers, racists and the occasional sand storm don’t bring down the radiance of Zengel’s performance.

It’s helped that Greengrass has assembled a team of brilliant collaborators. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best Western scores for a while, the tone of it making the film seem as if it itself is a story told by Kyle around a campfire to a tune played by a band. Meanwhile, Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography shows the beauty of nature and landscape along with the burgeoning “new world”.

The film comes together at a slow pace that might frustrate those looking for a more traditional Western, but this is much more in line with revisionist examples of the genre we’ve become accustomed to, and its slow pace gives you the feeling of the journey they are on. Though some may lose patience, the film’s overall feeling of hope will be a welcome surprise to many who often find Greengrass to be a director of gruelling intensity.


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