The Descendants

JONATHAN SENIOR sees George Clooney drive his wife to infidelity. Some people just don’t know how lucky they are…

Alexander Payne Fathers Film George Clooney hawaii infidelity Shailene Woodley Teenagers the descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne.
[rating: 4/5]

For once, George Clooney is not charming. His latest role has none of the slickness of Ocean’s Eleven, the award-winning intensity of Syriana, or the furriness of Fantastic Mr Fox. Here he is Matt King, a Honolulu-based lawyer and sole trustee of 25,000 acres of land. He is a powerful man, and he is also remarkably boring.

Boring is a recurring theme in The Descendants. The opening narration by Clooney introduces the Hawaiian setting in an unusually humdrum light. King laments the expectation that inhabitants are “sipping Mai Tais, shaking our hips and catching waves…do they think we’re immune to life?”, whilst the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael (brilliant name) focuses on the reality of traffic jams, skyscrapers, and dull grey skies.

These humdrum surroundings contribute to the overall power of this film, which presents a tale of terrible family anguish in an authentic, un-dramatic, and very un-Hollywood fashion. When his wife Elizabeth is left comatose by a boating accident, the previously detached King must repair his relationships with his two daughters amidst revelations of his wife’s infidelity. On his daughters’ encouragement, King seeks out Elizabeth’s secret lover, albeit with the characteristically dull intention of informing him of Elizabeth’s imminent death, rather than punching him. On a few occasions, King’s un-lively character does leak out into the film itself, and The Descendants sometimes moves a little too slowly.

But such flaws are hardly noticeable when the evolving relationship between King and his two daughters is so powerful and nuanced to rightly bring the film a bunch of Oscar nominations. These central characters are beautifully shaped by Alexander Payne’s script – adapted from the Kaui Hart Hemming novel of the same name – and are wonderfully portrayed.


Clooney gets the balance just right between King’s detached and dull veneer and his fragile internal feelings. This character seems genuine precisely because he reacts in an un-clichéd manner: he appears unconcerned when sitting at his wife’s hospital bed, and unapologetic when his daughter is accused of bullying a classmate.

We witness first-hand the detachment that left Elizabeth seeking emotional satisfaction with another man, but we still maintain sympathy for him. Brief cracks in his vacant veneer show King’s true emotions, as he begins his re-entry into family life: a shocking rant at his comatose wife, a cheeky kiss with a married woman, and an emotional goodbye that may or may not (ahem) have left me a little teary.

The young actors portraying King’s daughters are similarly impressive. Shailene Woodley is funny and charming and portrays 17-year-old Alexandra as most teenagers really are: rude, hostile to adult authority, and consistently accompanied by a stoned boyfriend. (What? You didn’t have one at 17?) There is no overblown coming-of-age: Alexandra shows moments of maturity, but she remains the corrupter of her innocent but hilariously rude 10-year-old sister (Amara Miller).

Woodley is also the focus of the film’s finest scene: a brilliant underwater shot of her bursting into tears at the bottom of a swimming pool. Like the film as a whole, it presents overwhelming and conflicting emotions that are only sometimes brought to the surface, but does so in a creative, slightly quirky, and very genuine manner. The Descendants certainly has its flaws, but I have seen few films that are so convincingly human.