By Joan Ellis
When you go to “The Giver,” don’t spend a second looking for anything actual or real.
If you just take it, from beginning to end, as a metaphor for what is wrong with our world, there’s a lot to think about. The central question of what would happen if we could erase pain is an intriguing one.
We are told at the outset that “after the ruin,” unspecified but probably a world war, the survivors built a society based on the erasure of memory of the past. The elimination of memory results in an Orwellian conformity that allows no pain, joy, envy or hate. The governing principle is obedience to a standard. No differences, no disagreements, only peace. Just chew on that idea whenever the movie itself seems somewhat silly.
At the annual high school graduation, the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) will announce the lifetime job assigned to each new graduate. It will fall to one outstanding student to be named The Receiver (Brenton Thwaites as Jonas) who will sit at the knee of The Giver (Jeff Bridges) who is supposed to tutor him but instead imparts – through the touch of a hand – the memory that has been erased from everyone else.
The Giver lives in a wondrous underground library surrounded by the books forbidden in the new society. His own memory, unimpaired, is full of the pain of war and the joy of love, which he hands in electric doses to Jonas. When the boy learns about feelings, he begins to understand the hollowness of conformity and knows he must try to recapture emotion for his world.
The acting? Only Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush are allowed to act human; the rest are basically obedient robots. Bridges conveys his misery beautifully, and Thwaites delivers his hard-won idealism with power.
A big salute to Ross Emery, cinematographer who has created a grand landscape of a world scrubbed clean of feeling. Full of architectural purity and empty of difference of any kind, he conveys the creepy vision with the force of a canon. A graduating class of students all thinking exactly alike, all living in beautiful white boxes without books or music or art. He has filmed the movie in black and white except for the marvelous visions of the old reality that explode in Jonas’s head in blazing color – gifts from The Giver.
The essence is clear when Bridges’ Giver asks Streep’s Chief Elder, “Do you know what it’s like to love someone?” She replies – with the one Streepian emotion she allows herself – that the conformity he hates has eliminated “war over a simple line in the sand” from the world, and adds “when people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong every single time.”
Welcome to an Orwellian world where there is no freedom of choice at all. No war, no crime, no hate. No love, no beauty. Which carries the bigger price tag?
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.