Sidney Lumet is still a name that conjures a certain kind of film-making, no-hold-barred drama, crime and corruption and a consistent output of quality. Today he stands as a tower in American cinema. With good cause too he gave us 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Hill and Serpico amongst many others.
Garbo Talks stands as one of the quirkier films he ever made. Coming at that important artists decade – the 1980s – a time that any established artist be it film or music found themselves in a creative whirlpool.
Anne Bancroft plays Estelle Rolfe, a committed protestor against all of lives wrongs, so committed in fact she drives everyone including her son Gilbert (Ron Silver mad with it). She also has a passion for the films of Greta Garbo. When she discovers that she is dying of a brain tumour she tells Gilbert about her one dying wish – to meet her idol. The only problem is that she has been in hiding from the public for years. Gilbert has to dedicate everything he has time wise and financially to see his mother’s wish come true.
It’s a relatively simple set up plot wise, Anne Bancroft puts in a spirited performance as Estelle. Although not necessarily remembered for comedic chops Estelle is very much a grand performance for her both in physical comedy and sharp one-liners. Garbo Talks belongs to Ron Silver though. In later stages of his career he tended to turn up as the wickedly be-suited government agent. Here his soft-voice and kindly face lend Gilbert her naive quality despite being a city worker. His quiet but determined devotion to his mother’s last wishes is what gives the film it’s overall charm. That’s what Garbo Talks is essentially, charming.
Gilbert’s inner-city quest to find the elusive Garbo takes on an increasingly episodic, fairytale quality, as he moves from one scheme to another in order to track her down. Characters come and go from scene to scene as the journey requires. Whilst there’s never any real sense of jeopardy to the proceedings it’s lovely to watch them play out.
With a plot that could have been played straight-faced and run the possibility of being maudlin Lumet made Garbo Talks perhaps the most easy-going film of his career. Even though it touches on themes of death, illness, failing marriages, absentee fathers and touches on the downside of the yuppie boom of the early 1980s. Career Fisher turns up in a slightly thankless role as Gilbert’s wife Lisa who’s job it is little more than to scream and cry about his financially disastrous quest. Although the sensible part of your brain makes you side with her. Once the plot kicks into gear Bancroft ends up becoming more of a featured cameo, with a performance with as much gusto as her’s it would have been rewarding to see a little more.
It doesn’t stand as one of Lumet’s best but Garbo Talks would look very good on many others directors CV. It’s gentle humour and themes of the mother/son bond carry it with enough good will to see that it’s a worthy entry in the great directors career.
Garbo Talks is now available on DVD via Simply Media