She's one of Hollywood's biggest rebels but with her powerful new film James Mottram finds Angelina Jolie is not without a cause
This is what you call a Hollywood moment. I'm sitting in the grounds of the Hotel du Cap, a venue so reassuringly expensive even A-list stars probably think twice before ordering the lobster for lunch. In front of me is Angelina Jolie, she of the bee-stung lips and body so lithe it could make the beautiful people feel the need for a nip-tuck.
In the background are the azure waters of the French Riviera, a calm counterpoint to the maelstrom that is the Cannes Film Festival a few miles down the coast. There, Jolie's new film A Mighty Heart, the harrowing story of the kidnap and murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl, has just been unveiled to considerable acclaim.
Its title sounds like a movie-of-the-week bio of Jolie herself but A Mighty Heart also offers her most important work since 1999's Girl, Interrupted, when her blistering performance as an asylum inmate, Lisa Rowe, won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, she is undeniably an early front-runner for a statue next year. She plays Daniel Pearl's wife, Mariane, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based.
At the time, Daniel and Mariane, then pregnant, were journalists based in Pakistan. After covering the American bombings of Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, Daniel, a bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, was researching a story about the shoe bomber Richard Reid when he was kidnapped in January 2002 by Islamic militants. His subsequent beheading, just over a week later, shocked the world.
Directed by Britain's Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart is seen through the eyes of Mariane during those horrendous days, as she waits and worries while attempting to track down her husband (played by Dan Futterman) with the help of the Pakistani authorities.
Shot almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Jolie does her bit for verisimilitude, donning brown contacts and a wig. While it's undeniably a gruelling watch, it's also a stirring tribute to Mariane's indefatigable spirit and dignity in the face of such trauma. "She's not blinded by hate and fear," says Jolie. "You can hardly get her to talk about that. She will not bend to self-pity at all. And I think - not just in this situation but as a woman - that's a remarkable thing to watch."
As it happens, Jolie has known Mariane Pearl for years, after the widow had read an interview with the actress and sent her a note out of the blue, asking if she and Maddox would like to make a play-date with her and her son Adam. "It helped in that I was able to study her and (get) a very good, clear idea of who this person was that I was playing," says Jolie. "But then at the same time when you are that close, it makes you very hesitant when you feel like you're mimicking a friend. You feel very shy about it. I came to care about her and her son: it's harder when you do know the person, in a different way, in an emotional way. And the film becomes very, very secondary to the realisation that there's a woman and this is her life and it's a responsibility." She pauses for a second. "I didn't sleep well many nights, taking this on."
In a bizarre twist of fate, Pitt had bought the rights to the book before he knew Jolie. "Before Brad and I were together they had talked about it, and she had mentioned that I'd be a good choice," she recalls. "Then we ended up being together as a family, Brad and I, and I'm sure that was funny for her."
By this point, their family had grown considerably after they adopted two more children - the Ethiopian-born Zahara Marley, two, and Vietnam-born Pax Thein, three - as well as Jolie giving birth to Shiloh Nouvel, now 16 months old. Pitt it seems, was more babysitter than producer on A Mighty Heart, when they were shooting in India. "I was working on the set every day and Brad was figuring out how to entertain the children in a hotel room in Puna - which was hard."
With a house now in New Orleans, which the budding architect Pitt designed, Jolie makes their life sound faintly domesticated. "After the kids are asleep, we'll hang out together and relax - take a bath or something," she smiles. While she has a glut of projects coming up - from a retelling of Beowulf to the comic book thriller Wanted - she says that last year she worked only two-and-a-half months. "I take big chunks. I've taken six to nine months, and then just been home. I do have a lot of time off, actually." She tells me that she and Pitt have made a pact that if any must-do project comes along, then the other will support the family. "We take turns," she says. Even if she doesn't believe in them, it still sounds like a genuine Hollywood fairy-tale.
A Mighty Heart opens nationwide today