FILM REVIEW: Trumbo (15)

Bryan Cranston and Elle Fanning. Picture: PA Photo/entertainmentone.

Bryan Cranston and Elle Fanning. Picture: PA Photo/entertainmentone.

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Hollywood is in the throes of a highly publicised civil war about ethnic diversity.

Filmmakers have vowed to boycott this month’s Academy Awards in protest at the lack of black actors among nominees, prompting sweeping reforms to the voting membership.

In 1947, it wasn’t race relations that pitted the great and the good of California against one another: it was the perceived threat of communists, who could use the big screen to spread their pernicious propaganda.

Membership of the communist party was not illegal, but various figures behind and in front of the camera were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about their political affiliations and to name and shame communist sympathisers in the ranks.

A group of screenwriters, producers and directors were so incensed by this challenge to their First Amendment right to freedom of thought and speech, that they refused to give direct answers to the committee.

These so-called rebels became The Hollywood Ten and were blacklisted by the studios for more than a decade.

Among them was Dalton Trumbo, who secretly penned Oscar-winning scripts to Roman Holiday and The Brave One during his time in exile.

Jay Roach’s handsome period drama, based on the biography by Bruce Cook, relives this inglorious period of paranoia and suspicion, when a few brave men stood up for their rights and suffered horribly.

Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) enjoys a charmed life with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three children Niki (Elle Fanning), Chris (Mattie Liptak) and Mitzi (Becca Nicole Preston) until waspish columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) casts aspersions on his political leanings.

John Wayne (David James Elliott), elected president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, weighs in and Trumbo is held in contempt by Congress.

While some people sever ties with Trumbo to protect their careers, low-budget filmmakers Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root) happily employ the venerated writer to polish their B-movies.

“They need scripts like an army needs toilet paper,” quips Trumbo.

Leading man Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) also uses his influence to secure the writer a seat at the Spartacus table, despite protests from advisors.

Distinguished by a tour-de-force Oscar-nominated performance from Cranston, Trumbo is a fascinating portrait of a time when suspicion could end a promising career.

Mirren savours every bile-drenched line of her finely dressed antagonist in sharp contrast to Lane’s warm portrayal of a supportive, self-sacrificing wife.

John McNamara’s elegant script glisters with snappy one-liners – “He’s trying to sell his soul, but can’t find it”– that recall a golden era when substance complemented style.

Roach’s film serves up a silky smooth, intoxicating cocktail of both.

Rating: 8/10