News of the World is a fine Western starring Tom Hanks

News of the World (M, 120 minutes), 4 stars

The international success of the 2016 film Lion significantly changed the fortunes of its screenwriter Luke Davies. Already a successful author, Davies adapted his own novel Candy alongside director Neil Armfield for the 2006 Heath Ledger film, but his best screenplay Oscar nomination for Lion gave him access to international studios.

In 2019, Davies worked alongside producer George Clooney as creator and series writer for a fun and well-made mini-series adaptation of Catch-22.

Here, Davies writes alongside Jason Bourne director Paul Greengrass to adapt Paulette Jiles' 2016 novel. Their screenplay is deliberately paced because it has a lot to say about a changing world - in this case post-Civil War America, though many will see difficult contemporary parallels.

Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels the beleaguered South in the years after the Civil War, using his oratorical skills to pay his way by reading stories from major city newspapers to a mostly illiterate and thankful audience.

Economically and spiritually feeling their loss to the North, the former Confederate states are a difficult place to live.

They're dangerous not just for lawless adventurers that make roads impassable, but also for the tense race relations.

The Native American tribes push back on having their lands and livelihoods taken from them.

On a ride between towns, Kidd comes across an overturned wagon, and cowering inside a grunting little blonde girl dressed in Indian buckskins. The adults she was with have all been killed.

Travelling to his next engagement with the girl (Helena Zengel) in tow, Kidd identifies her as Johanna, a girl taken from her family some years earlier and raised with a Native American community.

Frontier teachers and friends of Kidd, Doris (Mare Winningham) and Simon (Ray McKinnon), encourage him to return the girl to what is left of her German settler family in Texas.

Mare Winningham, Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World. Picture: Netflix

Mare Winningham, Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World. Picture: Netflix

Another friendly face at a town along the route, Mrs Gannett (Elizabeth Marvel), speaks some Native American and Kidd comes to learn that Johanna's Kiowa family refer to her as Cicada.

Johanna learns some English and she and the Captain begin to exchange words with each other on their travels south. She is spellbound by the sounds and the showmanship Kidd displays to his audiences.

They are intimidated by some rough men in one town who want to buy Johanna from Kidd. The men follow the pair out of town and a violent stand-off ensues.

Suddenly, returning this troubled, twice-orphaned girl to her people becomes a complex issue for the man troubled by his own demons.

There is so much to respect and love about this fine and complex modern Western, beginning with Tom Hanks.

He acquits himself wonderfully in a restrained characterisation.

Hanks' Captain Kidd was a reluctant soldier whose career prior to the war was to run a printing press. He didn't want to learn how to be violent, but now he has those skills he can't let an injustice stand.

As the young Cicada/Johanna, Zengel is a revelation. It is a mostly silent role, and Hanks allows her the room to shine.

There are a handful of upsetting violent moments, but they are not gratuitous, instead pointing to bigger concepts - race relations, the frustrated good old boys who see a win and a country taken from them, the danger that illiteracy brings to an easily-led populace, the meaning of family.

For the 1870s setting, the film is thoroughly modern.

It feels astounding that it is Greengrass behind the camera, he of the car chases and brutal action of the Jason Bourne films.

He and Hanks also worked together on Captain Phillips, and here their focus is more on character than on fists or guns, though both certainly play their part in the action.

What does feel like a traditional Tom Hanks film throughout is the big-name help behind the scenes, including a fine score from James Newton Howard.

This story Historical tale feels quite modern first appeared on The Canberra Times.