Magazine article Screen International

In Dubious Battle': Venice Review

Magazine article Screen International

In Dubious Battle': Venice Review

Article excerpt

Dir. James Franco. US/Italy. 2016. 113 mins

After his William Faulkner double As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, multi-hyphenate film creative James Franco takes on another worthy Library of America classic, the John Steinbeck book that gives the film its title - a tale of striking Californian fruit pickers that is probably the least-known of a Depression-era trilogy that also includes Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.

This period adaptation is just that: worthy, for all its eager social and political fire, and just a tad directionless. There's nothing wrong with the technical credentials of a film that gives rough, odorous, tactile form to the hardscrabble life of the American rural poor in the early 1930s, nor, mostly, with an ensemble cast that includes some standout performances - particularly by veterans Robert Duvall and Sam Shepard, both in minor roles.

It's the adaptation itself that is the main issue: too respectful by half of its source material, it gets bogged down, alongside the strike it depicts, in this overlong film's second hour. It dodges its own most urgent question: faced with injustice, should militants do bad, underhand things to achieve what they believe to be right?

That said, the story is a little more accessible than those Faulkner reboots, and the leading-man double act of Franco himself as a hardened Communist agitator and upcoming actor/musician Nat Wolffas his young protegé should attract some attention. With Selena Gomez in a supporting role, the cast alone should help push Battle into a small arthouse run in selected territories.

Steinbeck's novel was inspired by the 1933 wave of often brutally supressed agricultural strikes in Depression-mired California that would eventually lead Franklin D Roosevelt's government to introduce legislation guaranteeing workers the right to form unions and take collective action. …

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