Monday 22 January 2018

The Station Agent (USA 2003: Dir Tom McCarthy)

Here's another of the viewing notes from one of the south London FEAST Film Nights screenings (from 2015, hence slight out of datedness).

Finbar McBride is a lonely soul, a dwarf, gently obsessed by trains, who with his friend Henry runs a model shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. When Henry unexpectedly dies, Finbar learns that he has been bequeathed a small abandoned train station building deep in the country. With nothing left for him in Hoboken, the grieving Finbar ups sticks and moves into the rundown and rather pokey railway hut, building a fragile friendship with a variety of characters: happy go lucky Joe who runs an ice cream van, standing in for his ill father; painter Olivia, who has a sorrow of her own; a young girl called Cleo; and Emily the librarian.

The Station Agent was the first film from director and writer Tom McCarthy (who also produces and acts, the show-off). McCarthy is now more famously known for his latest movie, the riveting and powerful Spotlight (2015), which among other accolades won him ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Original Screenplay’ Oscars at the last Academy Awards. It’s tempting to make comparisons between both films – small people against the big bad world, if that doesn’t sound too trite – but in reality The Station Agent is very much a first film, unsure and hesitant, full of uncertain characters mired in their own worlds. This, by the way, is a good thing.

Peter Dinklage, with his sonorous voice and expressive eyes, is now a household name courtesy of the massively popular Game of Thrones TV series. But when The Station Agent was released the film gave the largely unknown actor his first major role. He is absolutely exceptional in this movie. Director of Photography Oliver Bokelberg’s camera spends a lot of time looking at him, as do we the audience. We’re invited to stare at and then move on from Dinklage’s dwarfism. This is because unlike many of the cast’s reactions to his size – shock, screaming, ignoring, staring and in one case taking a photograph – we also spend a lot of time in his company, and understand him first as a human being and second (or maybe third) as a person of small stature. What we never understand is his back story, which contrasts with the lives of Joe and Olivia, who feel comfortable confiding their troubles to Finbar. McBride in truth never invites these confessions – he just wants to live his life and indulge his obsession with trains, ambling among the discarded rolling stock of the New Jersey countryside – and the human cost of any personal interaction is clearly and brilliantly etched on his face.

In a 2003 interview McCarthy drew comparisons between casting a dwarf in a lead role with that of doing the same with a black actor thirty years previously. “Putting the financing together for The Station Agent you had people saying, 'Think about this, people aren't ready to watch a dwarf in the lead role of a movie'. I'd be like 'How do you know that?' A lot of the time I'd be talking to people about the film and, almost as an aside they'd say to me 'I have to say, he's very sexy'. You know, if it was George Clooney, they wouldn't be whispering that to me, they'd just come out and say it. It is almost taboo.”

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