REVIEW

High praise: Jessica Chastain's performance redeems docudrama The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Rated M, 126 minutes, 3 stars

Surely this must be the Summer of Andrew Garfield. The British actor is everywhere on the internet this week and in no fewer than three films currently on cinema screens - he's in the musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, and surely a month after its release it's not too big a spoiler to say that he's also in the new Spider-Man flick.

Now, in Michael Showalter's new biographical film, Garfield plays one half of the evangelical dynamic duo that dominated Christian television and, later, world headlines, in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Garfield plays Jim Bakker, the cardigan-wearing preacher whose Praise The Lord television empire may have converted a lot of souls but whose cultural legacy, all these years later, are the news stories about fleeced folks and donation plate money being inappropriately spent.

But the film is named for Jim's wife and is an absolute showcase for the vast talents of Jessica Chastain who is unrecognisable and brilliant as the raw and unfiltered Tammy Faye Bakker.

The eldest child from a large Christian family, the young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) saw the power of the pulpit watching from the back of the church as her mother played piano.

At a Christian college, the teenage Tammy Faye (Chastain) meets the charming Jim (Garfield) in class. Kindred souls who can quote the Bible chapter and verse, the pair fall in love, marry and take to the road with a children's show that marries Jim's sermonising and Tammy Faye's love for puppetry and music.

Jessica Chastain is unrecognisable and brilliant in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Picture: Disney

Jessica Chastain is unrecognisable and brilliant in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Picture: Disney

Their popular family entertainment comes to the attention of the television-famous minister Pat Robertson and they join the line-up of his television program.

But entertaining children is too limiting for the ambitious pair, who spend much of their private time dreaming about preaching the word of the Lord to bigger audiences.

Jim takes his chance one day, announcing an evening talk show-style program and it is an immediate success.

While the pair seems unstoppable, behind the scenes the men in power are nervous about Tammy Faye's fearlessness and unwillingness to be told who deserves God's love and who should be told they will burn in hell.

Breaking away, Jim and Tammy Faye form their own ministry and it's a hit. It has a television audience of 20 million to whom they broadcast a range of religious programming, from Jim's beloved sermonising to Tammy Faye's merging of gospel and popular music.

As history has documented, the pair spent the donations from their audience/congregation on themselves as much as investing into their ministry, and when a sex scandal opens them to media scrutiny, their old friend Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio) muscles in and takes the ministry for his own.

This is a fascinating film, based on the heavily researched documentaries The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000) and Tammy Faye: Death Defying (2005).

This movie could go much deeper, perhaps be a bit more raw an exposé. However, with many of the figures involved still alive and probably heavily lawyered-up, the writers focus on Tammy Faye herself.

She is a fascinating figure, almost a caricature with her fake eyelashes and highly drawn brows, but she is unapologetic and if she is considered a joke, then she's in on that joke.

Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana may be revered for their work with AIDS patients, but Tammy Faye interviewed an HIV-positive man on the PTL network at the height of the AIDS crisis, telling the man God loved him. That was ground-breaking, even while it was the kind of act that the filmmakers imply made certain figures close around the Praise The Lord ministry and move the Bakkers out.

But Tammy Faye's fearlessness and her ambition for her husband's vision is countered by her naiveté. We don't see much of the well-documented behaviours that brought about Jim Bakker's downfall - gay and straight affairs and dubious finances - and that is because, as the title implies, we are only seeing through this believing wife's eyes.

"I'm probably more dramatic than people would like me to be," Tammy Faye says of herself, and this gives Chastain free rein to inhabit this rainbow of a woman. Chastain's performance elevates the film and gives it the edge its writing lacks.

The production team do sterling work. It's a frightening aesthetic, the era that the PTL ministries ruled the air, and the production designers do authentically awful work in pastel and pattern.

Tammy Faye's make-up, too, is a work of genius. The film's producers are also behind the RuPaul's Drag Race phenomenon and in that spirit I say that Jessica Chastain's face is beat to filth, which means "great work" in homosexual parlance.

This story Chastain redeems script's sins first appeared on The Canberra Times.