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Green Book: driving Mr Shirley

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali star in film - based on a true story - that's a bizarre mix of buddy-buddy road trip, civil rights movie and Italian-American working class tale

31 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book

GREEN BOOK
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Certificate 12a
☆☆

A BIZARRE mix of buddy-buddy road trip, civil rights movie and Italian-American working class tale, Green Book is a well-meaning, sometimes funny, heartfelt and fairly shallow film with two good leads in the shape of Viggo Mortensen (oddly cast as the New York Italian blue collar type) and Mahershala Ali.

Tony “the Lip” Vallelonga is a Bronx-born Italian American with quick fists and quick wits – the classic Goodfella we all know from the school of Scorsese.

Working the doors at the illustrious Copacabana club, he has mouths to feed – and when the joint closes down for a two-month refurbishment, he is out on his uppers, and has to find ways to make ends meet in the run-up to Christmas.

Tony gets a tip that there is a doctor looking for a driver – and so heads off for an interview.

The man in question is Don Shirley – not a medic, but a man who holds various honorary doctorates and is a world-class pianist. He needs someone street wise to drive him to a series of engagements in the Jim Crow South – and Tony is his man.

We follow them as they head south, a journey that reveals much about the two men as American civil rights battles in the early 1960s.

The trip would not just open Tony’s eyes to the plight of millions of his fellow citizens, but also the eyes of Don – perhaps, the film suggests, that was his motivation for agreeing to such a tour.

Don lived in a prestigious New York address. He had studied classical music at conservatoires abroad. He performed in the American north-east and himself had a servant to help him.

Perhaps the failing of this very watchable film is the lack of background regarding Don Shirley. He is described as a “deeply private man” who became a student at the Leningrad Conservatory aged nine, made his concert debut aged 18 with the Boston Symphony, earned multiple doctorates, could speak many languages and was recognised as one of the greatest pianist ever.

Maybe its appeal lies not in the fact this is a true story, written by Tony’s son Nick (which adds to its charm), but in how it is shot. The juxtaposition of a serious civil rights story, about two men finding some common ground where at first there feels like there is none, is coupled with the way it is told. It feels indulgent to the senses: you have two beautiful leads, amazing music, while in every scene Tony seems to be gorging on some kind of feast – groaning tables of home-made Italian food are shovelled with glee into his gob… fat sandwiches with ham and cheese and pickle are wolfed down as he drives… hotdogs and burgers, oozing mustard and grease, are clutched as if his life depends on it, all swilled down with fine Scotch and beers and colas slurped through straws.

The very essence of a good life – food, music, friendship, love – provides a backdrop to the more serious issues the film attempts to tackle.

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