I finally caught up to this classic adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, and while the film can’t quite fully capture the novel’s magnificent portrayals of honor, paternity, and race relations in the deep South, it does an admirable job of trying. Gregory Peck is sensational as Atticus Finch, an upstanding lawyer in prejudice-filled 1932 Alabamba who’s handed the unenviable task of defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black cotton-picker accused of raping the ignorant-but-white Mayella Ewell (Collin Paxton) by Ms. Ewell and her racial-bile spitting father Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Finch, whose integrity is unshakable, dives into the task with aplomb and vigor—convinced that Robinson is innocent, he refuses to sell out his ideals to fit Maycomb’s old-school, racist ways of life. Much of what drives Atticus is setting the proper example for his children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), who have only him to look to for guidance, their mother having passed when they were 6 and 2 respectively.
Lee’s novel is marvelous for many reasons, but perhaps most striking is how she manages to adroitly mix the children, their learning experiences, and their passionate love and admiration for their father into the simmering-beneath-the-surface racial angst in Maycomb. A scant number of townsfolk outwardly confront Atticus about his willingness to represent Robinson—and do so with enthusiasm, nonetheless—but the trial, which encompasses most of the film’s second half, makes it abundantly clear where the town’s heart lies: despite piles of contradictory evidence, those present in the courtroom show no signs of being moved by fact, preferring to see an innocent black man go to prison than a white family embarrassed. It should be noted that Mulligan’s direction is somewhat safe, at times coasting on the massive strength of the source material—there’s not much spice to the camerawork, for instance—but he’s more than competent enough to make To Kill a Mockingbird a strong filmic accomplishment in its own right.
As mentioned, Peck is absolutely perfect as Atticus—he oozes composed authority, dignity, and fortitude—and Badham & Alford are superb as his children as well. Mulligan does a good job displaying the balance that Atticus tries to strike between shielding his kids from the town’s ugly ways and teaching them the proper way to live—a scene where Atticus calmly defends Robinson’s jail cell from a spirited, pitchfork-armed mob while Jem and Scout (who had run down to see their father in the dead of the night) stand resolutely by his side, a mixture of defiance and oblivion, is one of the film’s best. The entire courtroom sequence is gripping and superbly acted as well. Converting a literary masterwork to the screen is always a challenge, but Mulligan does the deed well enough to warrant its praise, and To Kill a Mockingbird should make admirers of the novel weep many times over. As for newcomers to the story? They should, at the very least, get misty a few times.