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There are a handful of best-selling suthor John Grisham's novels that have been made into films. In 1993, The Pelican Brief received the Hollywood touch as it took to the big screen with some big stars to match its big plot.
Two Supreme Court Justices have died. To the majority of the world, this seems innocent enough, but a lone law student, Darby Shaw, uncovers a conspiracy that reveals they were assassinated. With her only ally investigative reporter Gray Grantham, she is hunted by people who want her dead because of what she knows. Grantham wants her to give him the story, to tell the nation. She just wants to stay alive.
The Cast and Performances
Julia Roberts is perfectly cast as Darby Shaw. On top of her game as one of Hollywood's favourites at the time, she gives a brilliant 'rabbit in headlights' performance as the law student running for her life. Denzel Washington is Gray Grantham. His on screen charisma and presence oozes through the screen to the viewer and makes it so easy to watch. His no holds barred reporter looms large and the chemistry between the two leads is sizzling in suspense.
As far as a supporting cast goes, there are some heavyweight names providing some solid roles. Sam Shepard and William Atherton are solid in performance, and Stanley Tucci is scary as Khamel. John Heard as Gavin Vereek gives an outstanding support performance.
I am a big fan of John Grisham's novels, and am always keen on the screen adaptations of his novels. I am glad that the Pelican Brief is close to the story in the book, but even if were not so I think I would have enjoyed it. The acting is top notch, and the direction from Alan Pakula provides the right level of suspense throughout the film. Conspiracy plots must be dealt with carefully to avoid becoming ridiculous, no matter the source of the script, and this is handled very well here.
It is the ability of the ensemble of cast and crew to create an intense atmosphere where you don't know who is on whose side, and who is telling the truth, that makes this film so great. I love this type of thriller, and the Grisham adaptations are favourites of mine, this one in particular.
If I were to have a criticism, it is more in the story than anywhere else. Quite often, unbelievable elements are necessary in stories such as these where everything is so political, and it is necessary to take everything you see with a pinch of salt or disbelief will creep in and take over. Here, there are moments where actions are unfeasible and not likely to happen in real life, but artistic licence is a wonderful thing!
A great film, if a little unbelievable at times.
I rate this film at 5 stars out of 5.
The DVD is available from amazon.co.uk for £3.97.
This review may also be posted on ciao.co.uk.
Thanks for reading.
‘The Pelican Brief ‘is based on the book by John Grisham. It is a really well made film, which builds up tension so well and has you at the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next. Julia Roberts plays a smart-arse law student Darby Shaw. She is in a relationship with her tutor Thomas Callahan. In the news they hear about two Supremes being killed. Darby decides to write a brief about who the suspects of the murders could be. She calls it 'The Pelican Brief'. She nearly throws it away as she’s not happy with it, however Callahan reads it and shows to a friend in the FBI (just as a laugh!). However Thomas is killed by a car bomb and Darby soon realises it was meant to kill her. This of course means her theory must be right and have some weight for such an extreme action to be taken. She turns to reporter, Gray Grantham (Denzyl Washington) for help. I won’t give away the rest of what happens as it will spoil the film for people who haven’t seen it. The beginning of the film shows beautiful scenery of an island with lots of pelicans flying around everywhere. You do wonder what the film has to do with Pelicans, it seems strange at first. The film is a good and does justice to Grisham’s novel. There is a doomed dull atmosphere in the film, and the soundtrack is great at building up tension. It raises issues about law and order, power and the media. I’m not the biggest Julia Roberts fan but I liked her in this film. She plays the role of Shaw well, although at times she’s overemotional. Washington is a brilliant actor and is perfect as Gray Grantham. If you’ve read the book you will see that the end is different and I was surprised that they made the change. If you don’t like legal based films then this film is not for you. Also the film needs you to concentrate on what’s happening or you will get confused about
what’s going on. Personally I liked the film, it is a welcome change from the usual films I watch.
The Pelican Brief is an adaptation of another John Grisham classic, called the Pelican Brief (obviously!), featuring some of the bigger Hollywood stars including Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington taking the reigns of the main roles. Two judges are assassinated in the same night. Rosenberg, an old, crippled and dying Supreme Justice, hated for his controversial views on controversial issues, is shot to death whilst he sleeps in his bed. Jensen, another Supreme Justice, is strangled during his visit to a homosexual club. The US is up in arms and the hunt is on to determine who killed them and why. Two judges with nothing in common. Almost nothing, anyway. Intelligent law student Darby Shaw (Roberts) elaborates an idea which ironically she doesn’t give much credit in a researched brief, dubbed the Pelican Brief due to the nature of the idea. She shares her brief with her lover, her law professor Thomas Callahan, and it inadvertently climbs the channels of authority through Thomas’s best friend and FBI agent, Gavin Verheek. After a romantic night out, Thomas is killed when a car bomb blows up his vehicle which Darby is quick to realise was meant for her as well. She has become a target, with hitmen fast on her trail, so she has no other option but to go on the run. She knows her only chance of surviving is to publish the brief before the hitmen track her down, but to who can she turn when everyone who knew about the Brief is dead? A Washington Herald reporter, Gray Grantham (Washington), is about to get a lead that will change his life. Will she do it or will the trained killers silence Darby, who has a lot to learn about being on the run? The film accurately reflects the style of Grisham’s fictitious legal novels, in particular the heavy legal format that encapsulates the plot. The serious legal style and legal jargon can be hard to follow in the book itself, and in the steady stream of a film not understanding something
can mean you can quickly lose the plot, something I found myself doing a lot during the film. There isn’t much that can be done to animate or enlighten the heavy legal talk in a film. However, the suspense throughout this film will have you on the edge of your seat or curled tightly in a ball as the team of smooth, calm professional killers go on the hunt for Ms. Shaw, with a soundtrack accompanying the film which can only increase the tension of the most crucial scenes. I saw the film after reading the book, and I thought Denzel Washington was an excellent choice to play Grantham, portraying him exactly as I had perceived him to be in the book. Roberts plays the role of Shaw well, but I thought she made her character a little too emotional in the film, more emotional and expressive as I had perceived her to be in the book, in particular speaking in private with a soft voice that broke with emotion frequently, often to the point where you can hardly hear what she’s saying especially when she is describing the idea behind the Brief to Grantham. I think the film producers wanted Shaw to appear more emotional in light of her circumstances than the Shaw Grisham created in his book. The character in the film holds well under the immense pressure of her situation, holding a fine balance between common sense and emotion, survival and grief, but she is made more realistic by showing some emotion. After all, who wouldn’t react when your farfetched theory is validated when the people you love and who know about the Brief are assassinated around you? Apart from the fact that Roberts comes across as more emotional, another difference between the film and the book is the different ending, something I was actually relieved to see, feeling the film ended in a more tasteful way. Not following me here? Then go read the book and then watch the film! You will not regret it! The plot of both the film and the book are cleverly thought out and well p
aced. However, the film is not one of the most memorable films you will ever see, unless perhaps you are a huge Grisham fan like myself, who owns all of his books and you are interested in the way the scriptwriters have interpreted and portrayed the book. If this is the case, I’d like to point out that you can buy this film on VHS for £3.99 or so from the never-ending HMV sale. If you have read Grisham’s legal novels in the past and disliked the heavily legal and intellectually involved style he adopts, you will like the film even less. Understanding the plot stems from the all-talk parts of the film, so children may not understand this film, making The Pelican Brief more appropriate for teenagers and above. My love for Grisham and his books will cause me to have some personal bias in my recommendation, which I shamelessly admit, but I recommend the film all the same.
Another John Grisham legal thriller comes to the screen, pairing Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts in a film directed by Alan J Pakula, who is known for dark-hued suspense pictures such as Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men, and Presumed Innocent. The Pelican Brief isn't up to the level of those films, but it is a perfectly entertaining movie about a law student (Roberts) whose life is endangered when she discovers evidence of a conspiracy behind the killings of two Supreme Court justices. She enlists the help of an investigative reporter (Washington) and the two become fugitives. The charisma and chemistry of the leads goes a long way toward compensating for the story's shortcomings, as does a truly impressive supporting cast that includes Sam Shepard, John Heard, James B Sikking, Tony Goldwyn, Stanley Tucci, Hume Cronyn, John Lithgow, William Atherton and Robert Culp. --Jim Emerson