Another film which I have seen towards the bottom of many best picture rankings is this little known late 1930s biopic of one of France’s most famous authors. The film is largely about his involvement in the Dreyfus affair, but also takes a look into his literature, and I quite comprehend why it is often dismissed as one of the weakest winners of this award.
The film starts with Zola’s early life. He is a struggling author and close friends with Paul Cezanne, and more interested writing a social commentary than ever he is with making money. Over the course of the film he becomes more successful and this is told largely though a montage of his work. The bulk of the film concentrates itself with the Dreyfus affair. Dreyfus was arrested and sent to Devil’s island, convicted of treason, but new information soon comes to light that suggests that he is innocent. The military, however, want to suppress this information as it would dampen moral, but Zola decides to speak out in one of the earliest examples of courtroom drama.
Zola is played by Paul Muni, who ages expertly during the film. He won the Best Actor the year before for playing Louis Pasteur, but this performance would have been a worthy win too. He really does control the screen and the film is clearly about him. The supporting cast are solid. There is, for me, no performance that really stands out as fantastic, but pleasingly there are no weak links.
The best word to describe ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ is solid. This film is the first in the list that I find difficult to really fault. There is nothing that I can find wrong with it. Equally, it’s not a spectacular film, and I would find it hard to believe that there are many people who would have a deep love for this film. The majority of the film tells the story of the life of Zola in an effective, interesting but not particularly inspiring way. You get an essence of the man without really becoming overly involved in the film.
There are a couple of really high spots in this film. Perhaps it would be hard to create a bad version of the famous ‘J’accuse’ speech, but nevertheless it is a pretty special moment. The last section of the film in the courtroom is also brilliant. It gives an lasting impression and would easily come near the top of my favourite courtroom drama moments.
I have heard people describe this film as dated and criticise it because of this. It is dated in many ways: if this film were to be made today it would have completely different feel about it (if this film were to be made today I think it would be a bit like ‘Milk’ in style), but this also makes the film have a certain charm. There are some things, as well, that are important no matter how old a film, and that is intelligent, sensible and solid acting, and ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ succeeds in this for sure.