(26/10/06) – It’s all swampy politics, scurvy corruption, villainous individuals and little reasoning for Steven Zaillian’s latest, All The King’s Men. The result is a grubby, cynical quasi-approximation of a political period piece, a soft-pedalling of ambition, mudslinging and demoralisation shrouded in a mass of glossy, tedious and flimsy filmmaking decisions. Zaillian’s political agenda traces a disappointingly incongruous strategy embraced by a rambling storyline; the movie, as a result, registers as little more than a sleek, stone-cold political pseudo-exposé with little in the way of substance for us to clutch onto or ultimately care about.

Zaillian’s political period drama, a big screen fictionalisation of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, plays all of the notes at the right time. The problem appears to be that most of them are out of tune. Zaillian is far more adept at streaking out an onerous battleground for his cast’s powerhouse performances than he seems to be at deducing a more engaging story out of his template; the movie, consequently, knuckles under the heft of its performances. Already tipped as a likely contender for a slew of Oscar nods, the movie draws significance from its showy group of leads at the expense of most else.

The story, that of populist politician Willie Stark’s rise to the spotlight and subsequent fall from grace in a cloud of corruption and muddy affairs, parallels that of real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, like Robert Rossen’s 1949 Academy Award-winning interpretation of the same novel for the big screen. Told from the point of view of Jack Burden, an idealist newspaperman who hitches himself to Stark’s rising star and gets caught up in a muddy web of personal revelations and own failings, and played by an ever-vainglorious Jude Law, the movie is full of self-inflicted, underdeveloped and dissonant character instructions. This is, however, as much about the political process and corruption as it is about Sean Penn. As a calling card for another Academy recognition, Penn lends Stark his high-handed disposition, despondent frown and boisterous clout whilst probing his way through an inconsolably impervious screenplay that all too readily surrenders to secondary plotlines.

There’s something emotionally limiting about the modest, careful, smooth craftmanship with which the original material has been transposed to the screen. Stark’s good-man-gone-wrong preaching politician is only as believable as far as Penn’s over reaching arms, commandingly stretched out during one of his many speeches, extend to. This isn’t helped by Zaillian bestowing the responsibility of holding much of the backstory to Jack Burden, here portrayed as a desultory, disoriented young journo with seemingly as little understanding about the muddled affairs surrounding him as any of us. Jude Law’s misfired Southern accent is of little help. As a consequence, any insight into Stark’s mind and identity is limited by the decision to evade his development as both a human being and a politician in favor or secondary subplots recounting the corrupted soapiness of his aides.

Penn’s ‘for your consideration’ performance, however, is one of the strongest of his career, and this extends beyond the simple one-dimensionality of Willie Stark. In glossing over background exposition, Zaillian ultimately fails in creating any engaging character we should truly care about and though supported by a strong (though largely disappointing) cast, the movie ultimately fails in its attempts at being relevant.

All The King’s Men is out in the UK tomorrow.