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‘Michael Clayton’ works in the shadows

“I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.”

Michael Clayton is a “fixer” for a law firm. He helps Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s most valued clients out of sticky situations – a hit and run here, a potentially damaging affair there – and he does it well, efficiently and inconspicuously skirting the law. But essentially the former prosecutor is cleaning up after people.

And all he has to show for it is a luxury Mercedes, a divorce, debts from a bad business venture, and a gaping emptiness that can’t be filled by replacing one addiction (gambling) with another (work). He soldiers on regardless, suppressing thoughts about the true nature of his job and holding the rest of the world at arm’s length, driven by the need to support his son and pay back that $75 000.

It’s an unquestioning approach that’s made living in the shadows bearable – although some doubt creeps in when he’s called on to help Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s top litigator. Arthur Edens, who’s representing agrichemical company U/North in a multi-million dollar class action suit, has a nervous breakdown, stripping off during a deposition. Unsurprisingly the client gets a little jittery and Clayton is summoned to make the problem go away. But when U/North’s chief in-house counsel, Karen Crowder, discovers that there’s more to the Edens situation than some inappropriate nudity, she calls in her own – somewhat more heavy-handed – help.

It all makes the fixer’s task more difficult: as he uncovers the truth and Crowder’s cloak and dagger actions, Clayton’s no longer able to live in denial. Forced to recognise what he’s become, the morally ambiguous attorney is faced with a critical decision that may threaten his very existence.

It’s a testament to screenwriter and first-time director Tony Gilroy – not to mention George Clooney’s haunted performance in the title role – that we never quite know what Clayton’s decision will be. But that’s just one level of intrigue the writer of ‘The Bourne Identity’ and its two sequels has created with a tight, clever script and claustrophobic camerawork that both recall the slow-burning, character-driven thrillers of the ’70s. With echoes of Alan J Pakula’s ‘All The President’s Men’ and ‘The Parallax View’, he focuses on a man’s search for the truth rather than on car chases and shootouts.

But intrigue and suspense can only get you so far. Gilroy certainly wouldn’t have had such an engrossing film on his hands without the performances of his three leads. Clooney’s furrowed-brow determination is matched by the weary eyes of a man on the verge of burning out, while Tilda Swinton’s ruthlessly calculating Crowder is a knot of nervous energy and desperation beneath a disturbingly calm exterior.

And yet it is a feverish Tom Wilkinson, as the brilliant but tortured Edens, who seals the deal, providing the film’s emotional trauma but more importantly revealing the heart of ‘Michael Clayton’

“I am not the enemy,” Clayton tries to convince Edens, who shoots back: “Then who are you?”

That’s the real question Clayton – janitor, not miracle worker – must face. It’s fascinating to see him wrestle with the answer.

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