FILM REVIEW: The Descendants (15)

Good things come to those who wait and it’s been an agonising seven years since writer-director Alexander Payne ventured to the sun-dappled vineyards of the quirky Oscar-winning comedy Sideways.

He has directed a couple of short films and a TV pilot in the interim but Payne’s distinctive voice has been silent for too long.

Thankfully, the acclaimed debut novel of Kaui Hart Hemmings has wooed the film-maker back into the director’s chair, working from a beautifully crafted script by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

Set against the lush backdrop of the Hawaiian islands, The Descendants is a heartbreaking portrait of a family in crisis.

The film provides George Clooney with the role of his career and the handsome star elegantly navigates choppy emotional waters as a father who must turn off his wife’s life support machine while dealing with the grief of his two children.

The scene in which his character prepares to give the final order to doctors, kissing his beloved on the forehead and whispering, “Goodbye my love, my pain”, as a single tear rolls down his cheek, is sublime.

An Oscar next month would be a fitting reward.

Matthew King (Clooney) stares forlornly at his adrenaline-junkie wife Liz (Patricia Hastie) as she lies in a vegetative state after a water-skiing accident.

Doctors tell him there is no hope of recovery and everyone should say their farewells.

With a heavy heart, Matthew bravely gathers together his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious 17-year-old daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley).

The older child stopped talking to her mother shortly before the accident and it transpires that Alex discovered Liz was having an affair with real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).

Matthew is devastated but eventually decides to take a two-day vacation to find Brian and inform his rival of Liz’s injury.

“Everyone who loves Elizabeth deserves a chance to say goodbye,” Matthew tells an incredulous Alex.

The Descendants is drolly narrated by Matthew, who mocks the beauty of the Hawaiian landscape and shares the secrets to perfect parenting (“I agree with my father. You give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.”)

Characters are delicately sketched and there are lovely scenes between Clooney, Woodley and youngster Miller as they try to make sense of the hand that fate has cruelly dealt them.

Comic relief comes in part from Nick Krause as Alex’s slacker pal Sid, who joins the Kings on their painful odyssey.

However, even he tugs the heartstrings in a remarkable, early morning heart-to-heart with Matthew that reveals the anguish behind his clown’s goofy smile.

Belly laughs are balanced with tragedy and despair and Payne doesn’t strike a single false emotional note, although he does allow sentimentality to creep in for the sombre final five minutes.

By Damon Smith

:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 9/10

Released: January 27 (UK & Ireland), 115 mins