'The Giver' Review: Brenton Thwaits, Meryl Streep Breathe New Life Into Lowis Lowry's Characters
The Giver, adapted from Lowis Lowry’s 1993 novel of the same name, stars Brenton Thwaites as Jonah, the young hero of the story whose acquired knowledge gives him the ability to deliver his community from Sameness.
The Giver’s community in introduced in black and white, which is how the inhabitants see it, along with rules by which they live by that slide across the screen. The look of the community is modern, sleek. There’s a lot of white. Houses are modular blocks organized in cul-de-sacs that extend outwards from the community’s monolithic center. As the view expands, as Jonas narrates the strictures of life – one of a whitewashed, blunted existence – the scope of the world within a world comes into view. It’s a grid that rests atop a plateau that trails off to threatening cliffs in every direction.
Upon this plateau, within Jonas’s community, are family units that live in dwellings. It’s a sterile life, but it’s not morose. The citizens don’t choose anything, leaving their fate in the hands of elders, who claim to know them better than they know themselves, and submitting themselves to morning injections to quiet the “stirrings.” At age 18, it’s time for Jonah to say goodbye to his youth and accept his adult role in the community – the Receiver of Memory, the one responsible for holding onto the history of the world before Sameness, when there was love and loss and everything in between.
As Jonah begins his training as Receiver of Memory, his friend Asher (Cameron Monaghan) learns to pilot drones, while his other friend Fiona (Odeya Rush) starts caring for newchildren in the nurturing center, where Jonah’s father (Alexander Skarsgaard) has long worked. Much to his mother’s (Katie Holmes) chagrin, Jonah’s father brings home one of the struggling newchildren in an effort to help make it a viable baby so that it won’t have to be “released.” The baby, Gabe, becomes a major impetus for Jonah as he collects the varied realities of the world in which he lives and the one Elsewhere.
The trailer for The Giver does this movie no justice. It is not the next Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s not an action film. There are no children fighting to the death, nor are “factions” bracing for war. It is not a blockbuster, nor is it a fantastical science-fiction adaptation. It’s a bit of speculative fiction transferred to the big screen that homes in on human emotion. The characters’ feelings, lack of feelings, awareness and the meaning of their existence is at the forefront; it’s more about intangibles. It’s a far more introspective film than can be gleaned from the tritely edited two minutes of the theatrical trailer.
To book readers: Director Philip Noyce’s take on The Giver is, at its roots, incredibly true to the text, almost unbelievably so. Liberties have only been taken to modernize the 20-year-old book and ready it for movie audiences – substituting holographs for folders, aging the characters and switching around a couple of jobs. Also, birthmarks have replaced “pale” eyes. The ending is a touch more dramatic as well, which inevitably makes it one of the film’s weakest scenes.
While the veteran actors in The Giver – Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges – are its biggest names, the performances by relative newcomers Thwaites and Rush manage to eclipse them. As the Chief Elder, Streep channels in equal parts the character’s severity, calculated humor and deceptive benevolence. Her authoritarian monologues sizzle, nearly sealing her in for the movie’s most affecting performance. In the titular role, Bridges plays the part of the grizzled sage, sensei, teacher, Socrates, Dumbledore to perfection.
Thwaites and Rush, however, were tasked with playing 18-year-olds who’d never once felt the swell of love or the impulses of lust awakening to the unfamiliar powers and pulls of an injection-free existence. They emanate innocence and curiosity, and indignation at having been withheld the vital aspects of their humanity, while possessing the foreknowledge that it’s worth fighting for. Thwaites also channels the childlike wonder of one’s first encounter with snow and music (provided by Taylor Swift) – his eyes lighting up in amazement as he rides a sled and watches the inner-workings of a piano. He also believably captures the pain and horror that would overwhelm one should they never know cruelty and war.
The underlying philosophy of The Giver is that while ignorance might be bliss, knowledge is invigorating. Feelings make you human, but emotions give you purpose and meaning; they put you into motion to do something, to act on those feelings. Jonah’s journey is an allegorical odyssey of youth, one which encourages throwing off the shackles of conformity and seeing the world through ones own eyes. While the theme is not a new one, The Giver is more 1984/Brave New World-lite, one accessible to all ages, than it is the next blockbuster young adult adaptation. It’s an interesting watch, though unlikely to have anywhere near the longevity of its root material.