Erin Brockovich - rated - SIMMERING

Better than she looks

This movie, like Erin herself, is actually better than it appears to be.

It provides Julia Roberts with her best role by far, and she takes it and runs with it. She has long long legs in short short skirts. She has a hundred different push-up bras, and a thousand different tarty outfits. She's also got 3 little kids and, at the start of the movie, no job. But she's no mere tart with a heart of gold. She's the female equivalent of a working stiff - but she's smart, and she's a model of perseverence.

What I loved about this movie was the way that it avoided most of the clichés, while telling a story that we're only too familar with: David v Goliath, the triumph of the little guy over big business. Erin changes the world, but at the end she's not transformed into a well-groomed, well-spoken white-bread person: she's still Erin, tarty, loud Erin. Her relationships don't usually work out, and she nearly stuffs up her latest one too. So she remains a real person, and Julia plays her that way for every minute of the movie.

That's the integrity of this movie. It doesn't treat a formula as a formula. And it pays attention to the details. It's the details of this movie that really sets it apart. In every scene, the attention to detail is superb -in locations, set design and decoration, costumes, makeup and hair - everything is carefully chosen and utterly appropriate. The only quibble I have about the movie's attention to detail is Albert Finney. He's Albert Finney, no matter what he does, and that's OK, but he's just ineffably English. In all other respects, the character itself is just right. A busy, lazy, tired little man heading for retirement. Just a bit too English.

This movie doesn't condescend to the "little people". The people of Hinkley, California are portrayed with dignity and care. Even tiny roles are carefully brought to credible life. There are two scenes with a little dying girl which are pure gems of authenticity. The story involves hundreds of plaintiffs in a case against a power company, and we meet only a handful of these people, but we are made to feel that we know something about what they want - just as Erin does.

The pacing of the movie is superb, There's a lot of detail to get through, and also a lot of emotion to convey, and the film manages to speed up and slow down at just the right times - for just the right length of time - to let us take it all in. The editing is a masterpiece of nuance and economy. All credit to Anne V Coates, the 75-year-old masterful editor of Tunes of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) and The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980), among other films. It seems director Stephen Soderberg knows class when he sees it. So many editing touches here help set this film above so many of its "peers".

Thomas Newman provides a classy score, too, with a keyboard-based theme which enhances the film's pacing. Director Soderberg resists the temptation to play with the line of the narrative. Usually, he's the master of the flashback/flashforward. This time he allows the film to unfold in a chronological manner, but speeding up and slowing down the plot and the details, as necessary to convey the information he wants.

Apart from the miscasting of Albert Finney, the only other false note the film strikes is in the portrayal of the "big firm lawyers". Now these really are stereotypes, particularly the woman, Theresa (played by theatre actor Veanne Cox). She's played as a dried-up prissy old maid of a "lady lawyer" (presumably in contrast to bombshell Erin/ Julia Roberts). In one scene, Erin bitchily refers to Theresa's ugly shoes. I would have liked to see Theresa turn up at the end of the film in outrageous stilettos. She didn't. She just lookes mortified. When will we see a a female lawyer who's not a silly bitch?

But quibbles aside, this film was a very good one. There's more to it than meets the eye. It's clever, sensitive and moral. And yet, because you know at the start that you're in Julia's (and Stephen's) capable hands, you can sit back, relax and enjoy.