Have you ever stopped to wonder what would have happened if you’d not missed that train, or if you’d gone to a different coffee shop on a whim, or decided to stay in instead of going to that party? And what if those decisions weren’t actually made by you, but were made on your behalf? That’s the fascinating premise behind 2011 romantic thriller “The Adjustment Bureau”.
A loose adaptation of the Philip K Dick short story ‘Adjustment Team’, the film tells the story of young, charismatic congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) who encounters free-spirited Elise Sallas (Emily Blunt) just as he is about to deliver a concession speech in the recent Senatorial election. Inspired by her zest for life, he discards his prepared speech and talks candidly from the heart, revitalising his political prospects and making him a front-runner for the elections in four years’ time. A month later, a smartly dress Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) receive an assignment from his superior to ensure David spills coffee on his shirt by 7:05 AM so he misses his bus to work. When Mitchell fails to make the coffee spill happen, not only does David encounter Elise again on the bus but he also arrives at work to find everyone frozen and being examined by a team of sharply dressed men. He is warned never to speak of what he has seen by the leader of the adjustment team (John Slattery) and informed of one more thing: he must never see Elise again.
What’s refreshing about “The Adjustment Bureau” is the sci-fi elements of the story are very much background details against the story of David refusing to accept that he cannot see Elise again. It’s a well-paced, compelling love story which doesn’t rely on flashy special effects, explosions or action-packed set pieces in order to tell its story. The concepts are neatly enfolded within the world in which David and Elise live and the abilities and actions of the Adjustment Agents hint at either magic or technology depending on your preference.
The film explores the concepts of destiny, free will and the existence of a higher power. While it flirts with the idea of a God (The Chairman) and the Adjustment Agents being angels, it stops short of explicitly saying so and lets you make up your own mind. They could, if you like, be an advanced alien race shepherding humanity towards an unknown destination.
These kinds of stories live or die by the chemistry of the leads actors and happily Matt Damon and Emily Blunt make a great on-screen couple and it would take the stoniest of hearts not to be rooting for David as he takes on the Adjustment Bureau to be with Elise. Anthony Mackie is an engaging and intriguing presence as the Adjustment Agent who sympathises with David’s predicament while Terrance Stamp gives an imperiously aloof performance as Thompson, a specialist senior Adjustment Agent brought in to deal with David’s intransigence.
An uplifting, intelligent and intriguing antidote to bloated effects-driven high concept blockbusters, “The Adjustment Bureau” is a smart, grown-up thriller which uses its science fiction sparely but to great effect. It’s another one which almost guarantees those ‘what if’ conversations afterwards.