Retro Film Reviews: Primary Colours

[The final trip down memory lane, because this is the last film review I did for the student newspaper. This was published on 24 June 1998 – another gap of several months between this and the previous review. I wish I could remember why I was so infrequently used – the review editor probably assuaged me with ‘trying to use as many people as possible’ arguments, but I don’t recall the details at all. This last review was also the first to include a star rating – this was given three stars out of five – which marked a change for the newspaper; I don’t think it was because my reviews can be so wishy-washy, but the star rating made it easier to see what I thought of the film.]

John Travolta, overweight and greying, is governor Jack Stanton, a doughnut-chomping, womanising, quick-tempered politician with skeletons climbing out of every closet, including a tampered police record and women accusing him of adultery. His wife, Susan (a perfectly accented Emma Thompson), is a no-nonsense lawyer determined to make him president who refuses to believe the scandals.

If this description makes you think of Bill and Hilary Clinton, then you wouldn’t be too far from the mark. Based on the novel of the same name, Primary Colours is a ‘completely fictitious’ account of the presidential campaign of a governor of an unnamed southern state, and the allegations that constantly hamper his attempt to become president.

We witness the story through the eyes of their new campaign manager, Henry Burton, an idealistic young black man, desperate to find something to believe in. The film unfolds around him and his discovery of the real world of politics, as we see the way a governor runs for office and the people who are part of the frenzy.

Adrian Lester, a young British actor, does a fine job of playing the film’s pivoting character, standing up admirably to the two excellent leads, and the supporting cast are all on top form, from Billy Bob Thornton’s troublesome political strategist to Kathy Bates’ fiercely loyal campaign trouble-shooter.

Mike Nichols directs with aplomb, not distracting a strong story with too many showy cinematic flourishes. With an overly long and dragging last act, it is hard to see what appeal such a film would have in this country, but Primary Colours is an intelligent and well-made look at politics in the US, and an alternative to the traditional brainless blockbuster.

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