It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Ben Affleck. After several years as a jobbing bit-part actor he landed his big break with an Oscar for the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, co-written with his best friend Matt Damon. It seemed as though of the two young men it would be Affleck who would really make it big. Where Damon may have been obviously talented, Affleck had the classic film star good looks and the kind of easy charm that should have ensured true stardom.

But after his first big budget starring role in 1998’s Armageddon it all started to go wrong as first the critics, then the public turned on him. It was, of course, largely his own fault, thanks to a combination of an embarrassing public relationship with Jennifer Lopez and poor turns in bad films like 2000’s Reindeer Games, 2001’s Pearl Harbor and most infamously the dire Gigli in 2003, alongside his then fiancée J Lo.

After the highly public break-up of his relationship with Lopez, both his life and career seemed on the rocks. He may soon have got his love life back on track, hooking up with his Daredevil co-star Jennifer Garner, getting married and having a baby, but his career has largely remained in the doldrums. Even his much-vaunted comeback role in the intelligent Hollywood period piece Hollywoodland, while exciting the critics, failed to get audiences to turn out.

Now, with Gone Baby Gone – his first feature as director – he has finally come up with the goods again. Sadly, events beyond his control have gone and got in the way, delaying the movie’s release for over a year. Why? Because it all revolves around the abduction of a four-year-old girl who not only looks uncannily similar to Madeleine McCann, with the similar surname of McCready, but who is also played by an actress with the same-sounding first name – Madeline O’Brien.

It can only be hoped that these spooky examples of art imitating life won’t get in the way of British audiences’ appreciation of what is a genuinely impressive directorial debut from Affleck.
Adapted by Affleck himself from the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane – also the author of the novel Mystic River, on which Clint Eastwood’s harrowing and Oscar-winning 2003 movie was based – this is a genuinely family affair, starring as it does Ben’s little brother (and rising star) Casey.

Set in Affleck’s hometown of Boston – a city far rougher and meaner than many British audiences may appreciate from its famous television face in legal comedy-dramas Ally McBeal and Boston Legal – the city is so expertly brought to life through telling little details and minor characters that it is hard to avoid being swiftly caught up in events. With so many movies now reliant on special effects and action set-pieces to suck in audiences, it is a rare treat to see such loving attention spent on character and atmosphere – and something worth revelling in, even if the plot is hardly one to be enjoyed.

That both Affleck brothers should come out of the movie with their careers greatly boosted is a testament to its quality. Gone Baby Gone is one of those rare examples of Hollywood tackling a genuinely difficult and serious subject with both great sensitivity and panache, not to mention a hefty dose of the kind of moral ambiguity that filmmakers so often shy away from in pursuit of clean and obvious resolutions. Let’s just hope that they can both keep it up.