Frank Darabont's a very old-fashioned director. Long, carefully framed takes that would make Ford, Hawks and Huston proud replace the visceral pyrotechnics of the post-'70s generation. His films don't lack shocks or excitement - although The Green Mile is clever and funny and warm, it also has moments of bludgeoning violence - but stillness is his talent. Often he'll just hold the camera on his actors' faces, letting their eyes tell stories. It's an approach that let Tim Robbins' understated Andy Dufresne dominate The Shawshank Redemption and works equally well here in eking out an edgy performance from Hanks.
In recent years, the shadow of Forrest Gump seemed in danger of destroying Hanks as a credible actor. Increasingly his performances lacked even a scrap of darkness to balance out all that mushy niceness. Saving Private Ryan let him hint at a character with a harder core, but the script and plot of Spielberg's war epic copped out. Darabont, on the other hand, never lets Hanks relax Edgecomb into something softer than he should be. Yes, he can be kind to inmates like dotty old cajun prisoner Del (Jeter), but his capacity for brutality when necessary is shocking. Hanks never lets you forget that, however reluctant he is, this is a man who guards killers and fries men in the electric chair.
It's a complex and individual performance at the centre of some corking ensemble work. Too often supposed long-time workmates act like they were assembled in a casting meeting. Here, there's a real sense of camaraderie among the four main guards who talk like drinking buddies but move around the electric chair like well-oiled automatons. The unhurried way in which Coffey (the huge and hugely effective Duncan) slowly becomes part of their lives never feels forced or rushed. And neither does the slow drip-feed of mysticism. Few films of the last decade have handled religious belief with such straightfaced conviction, with the audience's creeping acceptance of what is really going on echoing the characters'. For once, the length of a film is an essential and not a luxury.
But while it's very good, The Green Mile isn't Shawshank-standard flawless. The episodic nature of it all (perhaps unavoidable when you consider that author Stephen King published the story in six installments) is fractionally too pronounced. There's also slightly too much reliance on flickering lights to indicate Coffey's powers, and a modern-day framing sequence never quite convinces. One major plot point is telegraphed too early and another is never made quite clear enough. They're all minor quibbles, but there are just about enough of them to drop the movie from five to four stars. But don't let that worry you too much: The Green Mile is still leagues ahead of most other Hollywood dramathons.