Focus Features
Opens in select cinemas on 26 November

Film In Focus

It’s no easy task being a biopic these days. My feeling is that audiences know what to expect in terms of this type of narrative. It’s going to be epic, passionate, political, (hopefully) moving… And if a biopic hits all those marks, it’s just about par. We need great performances and a subject whom we can empathize with.

In Gus Van Sant’s telling of the Harvey Milk story, we are observing a different kind of film. Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and was the first openly gay man voted in to public office in America. His impassioned campaigns for equal rights could not be a more timely matter in California amidst the Prop 8 of it all. It’s a local story that still continues to have a national and global ripple effect.

Instead of wide, sweeping frames, Van Sant brings his lens in tight on our subject and the characters in his periphery. So close, in fact, that we are often looking into the eyes and faces of these characters as if we were their best friends or lovers. It’s an intimate take on a huge story and the delicate nuances cannot be overlooked. In place of a sweeping orchestral score, there is a subtle yet effective soundtrack by Danny Elfman. It lacks the magic and whimsy of most of his Burton-esque works, but is still a marvel in its own right. This is more in the vein of “Good Will Hunting.”

And if the subject matter or the snug approach don’t hit you, the performances surely will. If Sean Penn does not win the Oscar for his work in “Milk,” then there is not justice in the world. As with many of his film portrayals, Penn dives in with such abandon that you can’t envision him any other way. To his sides are roles that, perhaps initially, struck me as a bit on-the-nose. But when you consider how colorful these characters actually were – how bright and vivacious they had to be just to be heard – then there’s nothing more natural. Of particular note are James Franco (as Milk’s lover, Scott Smith) Diego Luna, Alison Pill, Emile Hirsch and Joseph Cross. And if I just named most of the cast, then so be it. It’s a fine ensemble around the ever-remarkable Sean Penn, telling a timely and important history of a fascinating man and inspired leader of the time.