Nominated for Best Film at this year’s Academy Awards, Michael Clayton is a legal thriller following the development of a high profile law case following the mental breakdown of one of the key litigators (Tom Wilkinson). Sent in to clear up the mess the law firms fixer (George Clooney) soon finds himself up against the hard-talking head of his client’s legal department (Tilda Swinton). 

In a crowded Best Film category which included eventual winner No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and highly-rated British film Atonement, many observers were surprised to find the John Grisham-esque thriller Michael Clayton stealing in with a nomination. Indeed, as the countdown to Oscar night got smaller and smaller some observers worried that the only reason it had been included was that it was going to beat the likes of No Country to the gong. It’s easy to see why people were worried as despite it being an involving, well-acted, thriller it is hard to see anything in it which justifies an award. 

Taking into account its title the film suggests itself as a character piece, following the trials and tribulations of Clooney’s Clayton as he attempts to make the various parts of his life stick. The film does largely stick to this model, occasionally veering off path to develop the conspiracy elements of the film’s plot lines. Enough has been written about Clooney in the past year or so to keep a team of lawyers busy for a number of months but there is no doubting he is a magnetic presence when on screen. Whatever the quality of the material, Clooney remains extremely watchable and with a decent script and ambitious plotting he excels here, managing to reveal the many facets of Clayton through various interactions with his family, work colleagues and his own darker underworld connections. 

Supporting Clooney is Oscar winner Tilda Swinton and nominee Tom Wilkinson. If anything, Wilkinson’s is the better performance, giving depth to a character who remains unpredictable and unreadable throughout the film. It is perhaps one of the film’s main points that you are never entirely sure whether Wilkinson’s Arthur Eden is the mad one or if, indeed it is the world around him. Swinton’s Oscar win meanwhile appears generously gained on the evidence shown here. Rarely does she step outside of her comfort zone and despite Director Tony Gilroy’s best efforts the character’s facets are never anything but hidden. Browsing the list of Best Supporting Actress nominations it does seem that there are more worthy performances in more worthy films and it does make one question whether Swinton’s award was designed to recognise a film which missed out elsewhere. 

As a whole Michael Clayton is an accomplished thriller with strong direction from
Gilroy. A significant, if tried and tested, device early on in the film immediately ensures audience involvement and the central performances ensure it is retained. As a character study it is slightly flawed with bits of Clayton’s life, particularly his family life, remaining tantalisingly just out of reach (a fact which invites a later Director’s Cut DVD release). As a legal thriller however, it is close to perfect, avoiding the muddy, slower, waters of a jury led debate. Indeed it is interesting to note that we never actually see the inside of a courtroom with Michael Clayton instead taking centre stage.