Jonathan Demme | 2hr 6min
Throughout the history of filmmakers who have harnessed the full potential of close-ups, there are few so singularly focused on their standalone power as Jonathan Demme, and the trial that encompasses the final years of one man’s life in Philadelphia is the perfect canvas for such potent expressions of empathy. The camera is a vehicle of pure, emotional connection here, and even in spite of its consistently tight framing, there is a versatility in its placement which opens us up to Andrew Beckett’s full, complex characterisation, steadily built out through the court case that he launches against his former employer.
Tom Hanks’ accomplishment may arguably be even greater than Demme’s here, delivering a performance that fully capitalises on the close-ups narrowing in on his expressive face, growing paler and weaker the further along Andrew’s AIDS progresses. At the same time though, his intelligence and determination remain steady, pushing him to seek justice for his wrongful dismissal right up until his dying moments. At his most affecting, Hanks rolls pieces of both his physical vulnerability and moral strength into a sincere tenderness, expressing a deep appreciation for opera and its fleeting, lyrical beauty. As he closes his eyes and translates his feelings into words, Demme’s camera hovers above him at a high angle, capturing one of Philadelphia’s most transcendent close-ups at the point that the lighting fades to red and Andrew’s mind disappears into a realm of blissful, divine joy.
It is a thin line between intimacy and intimidation though, and it only takes a slight shift in tone for Demme’s close-ups to turn on Andrew entirely, probing his personal space much like those lawyers and firm partners who bring his private life into the public eye. As he mixes with his colleagues at a function, the camera keeps wandering towards a lesion on his neck, looking at him through the eyes of the men whose suspicions of his homosexuality will soon push them to sabotage and fire him. When that meeting arrives, the cutting back and forth between Andrew and the executives sees the camera gradually push forward on Hanks from a wide shot, narrowing his world around him as he realises what is happening, until we finally arrive on his face in an isolating close-up.
Perhaps there is some solace to be found in Andrew’s lawyer, Joe Miller, who, while not exactly being any kind of LGBT ally, does offer hope as a representation of society’s shifting cultural attitudes. The road to progress is not perfectly smooth, as even after he decides to take on Andrew’s case there are still bursts of gay panic that emerge, and by the end of the film there is no sense of Joe entirely moving past those ingrained prejudices. Instead, it is simply the sweet friendship forming between them that brings understanding and acceptance – not just of another’s sexuality, but for Andrew, of one’s own mortality.
Denzel Washington and Hanks’ chemistry in these roles is helped along a great deal by Demme’s point-of-view shots, letting his actors gaze right down the camera’s lens and stand on the precipice of breaking the fourth wall. Even beyond the way he shoots their faces, he keeps subtly shaping our view of them with a gorgeously shallow depth of field, creating soft, impressionist backgrounds that lift the actors very slightly out of their immediate environments. Within one library scene, rows of green lamps make for a gorgeous display of mise-en-scène in wide shots, but even as we cut in close to Hanks and Washington, Demme is sure to keep the lights vaguely present behind them, shining a pale, sickly glow on their faces.
Perhaps in less skilled hands, Philadelphia might have easily been lumped in with far more mediocre “issue” movies that tackle socially significant matters beyond the director’s grasp, but the cumulative effect of Demme’s empathetic visual style here does beautifully well to strengthen the film’s formal power. It is ultimately in embracing tightly framed close-ups of his actors that he reaches so deep into their impassioned performances and pulls out such raw anger, melancholy, and yearning, fully realising the complex emotional journeys hidden behind these bold fights for justice.
Philadelphia is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.