Thursday 30 March 2023

On demand: "Temple Grandin"

It was a multiple Emmy winner for HBO's telefilm division at the start of the last decade, and yet even just 13 years later, you find yourself wondering whether they could make
Temple Grandin in this manner today. It is, as that title suggests, a biopic of Temple Grandin, the inventor and activist who was inspired by her own experiences of autism to design a comforting device that enables users to shut out intrusive and upsetting thoughts. (She got the idea after seeing how cattle were treated on her aunt's farm; the memoirs from which this screenplay was adapted saw Grandin bearing witness to a period - the mid-to-late 20th century - when those with autism were treated worse than livestock.) In the title role, Claire Danes is as impressive as she's ever been outside TV's Homelandalways present and switched on beneath Grandin's wild tangle of curls, and capably suggesting this subject's unique way of thinking and talking, she makes the character's sporadic breakthroughs especially touching. What's around her, however, can seem very blunt in its construction; it's an unusually insensitive biopic of a hypersensitive figure, audibly and visibly geared towards the non-autistic viewer, and thereby prone to hammering home with every cutaway and insert just how autism reorders the thoughts.

It can be very funny in this, as with the illustration of how Temple hears and understands the phrase "animal husbandry". Yet the first half feels more than a touch brusque, doubtless because there are only so many biographical bullet points a film can squeeze into a two-hour timeslot. In the second half, however, you see exactly what director Mick Jackson - he of the most idiosyncratic career, from Threads to The Bodyguard and this - has been racing towards: it develops into a wonderful, one-of-a-kind story, as having learnt from cattle to help herself, Temple effectively repays the favour, a process that involves mucking in and going to war with the cowboys on John Wayne's ranch. (Implied subtext: why can't someone with autism be the protagonist of a Western?) Never as pious as, say, A Beautiful Mind, it's fortified by a fine supporting cast: Julia Ormond as the mom at the end of her tether, Catherine O'Hara as the aunt who helps pick up the slack, David Strathairn - of course David Strathairn - as the kindly teacher who finds a way of communicating with an altogether singular student. Whatever the delicacy of the film's choices, most of them prove effective: I emerged royally entertained, moved and knowing more about autism than I did going in. The kid-glove treatment, clearly, only gets you so far.

Temple Grandin is available to stream on NOW TV.

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