IRIS BREWARD reviews Tom McCarthy’s ‘Spotlight’, the urgent docudrama exposing abuse in the Catholic Church with a ‘gut-churning gravity’. 

It is rare to see a film that’s serious about its subject without being moralistic or self-congratulatory. Tom McCarthy’s docudrama Spotlight hits the nail on the head; it’s gripping, thoughtful and free from over-embellishment.

Delving into the world of investigative journalism in the early 2000s, this story, co-written by Josh Singer and McCarthy but based on true events, revisits the uncovering of one of the biggest scandals of the decade: the systemic sexual abuse of children by priests within the Catholic Church. The four-person ‘spotlight’ team at The Boston Globe are tasked with lifting the lid on the can of worms and successfully exposing the horrifying truth – a journalistic feat that won the reporters a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

McCarthy faithfully transfers these events to the big screen with understated grace and awareness. The film goes beyond finger-pointing, focusing instead on accountability. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) puts it, “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Spotlight tackles the wider implications of the scandal without getting bogged down in a blame game. No one is let off the hook, not even the audience.

The star-studded ensemble cast, featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, all deliver impressive performances. The actors harmonise to create a convincing evocation of office life and old-school journalism. Ruffalo has the most theatrical role, meaning his portrayal of Mike Rezendes stands out from the bunch. He is given the only shattering outburst of rage, and delivers it with a fierce passion that acts as a catalyst for our own anger at the conspiracy.

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Keaton is also at the fore as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, the leader of the spotlight team. It’s great to see him in a role that’s the polar opposite of his melodramatic performance in last year’s Birdman, especially when he pulls it off with total authenticity. Other members of the cast are equally as strong: McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer is quietly tenacious – her discussions with the victims providing some important emotional heft – while Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Live Schrieber and Billy Crudup all deliver good performances in smaller roles.

The slow-building momentum of Spotlight really gets under your skin, with its join-the-dots plot and hyper-realistic narrative. Who knew that a montage of database compiling could keep you on the edge of your seat? Or that endless head scratching, document examining, note taking and door-to-door visiting could create cinematic tension to rival far more explosive action sequences? The pace is considerably helped by sharp editing from Tom McArdle, who manages to imbue these sequences with a kind of pervasive urgency that keeps you hooked. Howard Shore’s understated soundtrack further chimes with the steady, progressive rhythm of the film.

Some viewers may be frustrated by the limited perspective of Spotlight: the events unfold entirely from the journalists’ point of view, without emotional flashbacks or insights into their personal lives. However, this conscious directorial decision ultimately gives Spotlight a commendable no-nonsense clarity.

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Spotlight is one of the least showy films nominated for best picture this year. In many ways this works in its favour, although it may reduce its chance of a win. The film is decidedly unglamorous, with little in the way of eye-catching cinematography, but what Spotlight lacks in stylish flourishes it makes up for with the meatiness of its subject matter.

Yes, it’s heavy, but this doesn’t detract from the gut-churning gravity of Spotlight’s story. It was not the discovery of a ‘few bad apples’ that rocked Boston and cities worldwide to their core, but the recognition of what could only be described as a ‘psychiatric phenomenon’ among priests. More important however, was the revelation that it had been swept under the rug for decades by the Church and ordinary citizens alike. It is even revealed that The Boston Globe had the chance to run the story some years previously, but chose to sideline it.

It leaves you wondering just how many more scandals are unfolding under our noses right now. How many more widespread injustices will we respond to with wilful blindness? Spotlight’s revelation is more sobering than satisfying – and so it should be.

‘Spotlight’ is on general release. 

CategoriesFilm Iris Breward