Film Analysis: The Meaning Behind Collateral Beauty

The 2016 film Collateral Beauty may have had low ratings and did not profit as much as you’d expect from a movie teeming with A-list names. But if you’re looking for a movie that isn’t afraid to explore the different kinds of emotional pain in life and how to best cope with it, then this is one movie you have to watch.


The movie focuses on the points of emotional pain: love, time, and death. The meaning behind Collateral Beauty shows how these three ultimately affect how we react towards the pain. We wouldn’t feel pain if it didn’t come from a source we love. When you realize that time is a human construct yet we’ve no power to stop the concept of it, it causes pain. And perhaps the ultimate question the film answers is whether or not we ourselves are physically capable of seeing the beauty in these three despite the pain that follows.

What Is Collateral Beauty?

Collateral Beauty is a 2016 film directed by David Frankel. It premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival and was released to the rest of the world three days later. It’s an American film shot in New York and starring actors such as Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris, Jacob Latimore, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren.

The movie takes its name from the scene where Madeleine, played by Naomie Harris, says that she learned how to cope with her daughter’s death after a woman told her to notice the acts of kindness that follow tragedies such as this. These are what is known as “collateral beauty.” People are so used to collateral damage – the connected but not really important things or people that break or get hurt in the process – but no one really looks at the good acts shown during these moments that can make a person feel better.

In terms of ratings, the movie received very low ratings overall. While it was successful in making a profit, it’s not the kind of high-profit film you’d expect with an ensemble cast of a-list celebrities.


What Is Collateral Beauty About?

The film starts by focusing on advertising executive Howard Inlet, who has become depressed after his daughter’s death. His behavior has cost his company most of its major clients, bringing it to the verge of bankruptcy. His friends and business partners – Whit, Claire, and Simon – try to sell the company, but as the majority shareholder, Howard continues to prevent it.

The three decide to hire a private investigator named Sally and later on a trio of actors named Brigitte, Raffi, and Amy to prove Howard is unfit to run the company and legally take control. After Sally finds letters Howard wrote to the concepts of Love, Time, and Death, the actors are instructed to talk to him posing as Death, Time, and Love. Sally is instructed to record the conversation but digitally remove the actors, so it will look like Howard is only imagining the figures. Before they can talk to Howard as if they know him, however, the three actors spend more time with Howard’s three friends.

Meanwhile, the actors have convinced Howard to attend a grief support group where he meets Madeleine. Madeleine also lost her daughter, which led to the downfall of her marriage. She copes with grief in her own way, seeing the “collateral beauty” in what happened following her daughter’s death and her divorce.

Eventually, Howard’s friends get an edited tape of Howard speaking to the actors. Howard realizes how his actions have affected the company and decide to leave, ensuring the company remains operational and promises his friends he is grateful for what they’ve done and will be there when they need him. Simon decides to tell his wife about his cancer. Claire realizes she still has time. And Whit talks to his daughter and reconciles with her.

Howard spends more time with Madeleine and discovers that he was her ex-husband and he had forgotten about her during their time apart. In the end, it’s revealed that the actors were actually the real Love, Time, and Death, appearing to people when they needed their help.


While the movie focuses on Howard’s plight, the film focuses on Howard’s three friends and how they also cope with their own grief. During this time, the film also focuses on the lives of three friends. Simon is getting treatment for cancer and has not told his wife about it. Claire fears she has run out of time to have a child of her own, having spent more time at work than on her private life, and is looking for sperm donors. Whit cheated on his wife and now struggles to talk to his daughter who hates him.


Love: Whit & Amy

Whit struggles with love in two ways: love for his wife and his daughter. His actions of cheating on his wife prove that he did not totally love her, and his actions have cost him his relationship with his daughter, Allison, whom he had truly loved. And he seems to find that his love is unrequited as she continues to rebuff his advances to communicate with her.

Amy – later revealed to be Love – teaches him how to continue showing his unconditional love to his daughter. Having promised to never stop trying to contact her, Allison realizes that while her father may not have truly loved her mother, he loved her as well. So, realizing she is the source of his pain, she decided to open communication once more and let him in.


Time: Claire & Riff

Time is a human construct, but it is also an inevitable concept. Claire realizes she’s run out of time to have a child, and feels pain knowing that she could have, at any moment in the past, focus her time on trying to have a baby of her own. When you’re aware that time is fleeting, you want to do everything you can before time runs out. So, to actively do nothing when you’re well-aware that you want to do something else is to cause your own pain, something Claire believes she’s done, having focused more of her time at work than with her own personal life. If she had wanted a baby very badly, she could have just found time to either find a partner willing to raise a baby with her or find another sperm donor with enough time to not worry.

Riff (Time), however, knows that she still has time and promises it is still not too late. As Time, it’s possible he knows what will happen in her life and knows she will be a mother in the future. However, I think what he wanted her to see was that she could still become a mother without giving birth to her own child. Having the potential to affect many young people, she can still make a difference in other young people’s lives.


Death: Simon & Brigitte

Finally, Simon struggles with the concept that he could die, and it eats at him for two reasons: he could die without his family knowing why, but he doesn’t want his wife to worry about the thought of him dying. Imagine having to carry the burden that you may die, but at the same time not wanting to transfer that burden onto your loved ones. If you survive, then that’s great. But if it’s a disease like cancer that takes the lives of thousands of people every year and you’re not one of the blessed ones that can fight the disease, then when you die, they’ll be the ones in pain knowing you secretly carried this burden alone.

Brigitte shows him that it is much better to face his problems with his wife rather than face them alone. The pain of risking death eases when it is shared, and Simon shows this.

In all three instances, Collateral Beauty shows that what is the source of emotional pain can also be the source of joy. Whit reconciles with his daughter, Claire finds purpose in her life, and Simon learns how to cope with his illness. It shows that the concept of “collateral beauty” does not only apply to Howard’s story, but to everyone who can relate to the pain and see through the beauty of love, time, and death.

A Film About Pain and Joy Wrapped in the Holiday Spirit

Personal discoveries and realizations caused by tragedies are deeply personal and spiritual journeys each person goes through. Everyone shares these experiences, as proved by Collateral Beauty. 

Nestled in the energy and warmth of the New York holiday season, the film tells the comforting story of a man’s progress amidst his loss. Eventually, he realizes that there are still good things beyond his understanding.

Although in the end, the three elements were simply Howard’s ghosts, the film shows its viewers the reflections we make in such delicate moments. Because deep down, these reflections are a universal language for the whole world, which defines the state of mourning we go through.

Perhaps many moviegoers left the cinema feeling a little betrayed because of the moments that draw out some crocodile tears. But deep down, we can all agree that the film encouraged us to notice the collateral beauty of things, aka the acts of selfless kindness that follow tragedies.

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