Film Review: The Perfect Candidate

Director and co-writer Haifaa al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate is a socially relevant and quietly engaging drama. The film’s optimism gives it a winning edge.

After her frustration with the flooded road that leads to her clinic, young doctor Maryam decides to run in her city’s local election. The first female candidate to do so, Sara’s family get caught up in her campaign…

Focusing on a young female doctor and her family, The Perfect Candidate offers a picture of contemporary Saudi Arabia. Like al-Mansour’s debut effort Wadjda, her latest film gives an insight into life as a young woman under a socially repressive regime. 

The narrative unfolds slowly, with the central strand not emerging initially. Once this gets underway, most of the action concerns Maryam and her campaign. A secondary strand focuses on her father and his band’s tour. At first glance, al-Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann appear to put a bit too much emphasis on this rather repetitive strand. Nevertheless, its importance emergences in the final third of the film. 

Protagonist Maryam is developed well. She seems multifaceted; Maryam is someone facing discrimination, yet she is not free from prejudice herself. Her father and sister Selma are sufficiently fleshed out. The antagonists in The Perfect Candidate are not given much screen time; with al-Mansour opting to focus on the family at the heart of the film. 

The Perfect Candidate feels very contemporary. Maryam drives herself in her brand new car, and is able to run for council. Nevertheless, al-Mansour makes very clear that the regressive attitudes and rules remain. She highlights that these exist among women as well as men. The film ends on a small positive, with al-Mansour giving a hopeful indication that attitudes are slowly changing. 

Mila Al Zahrani delivers a solid performance in the central role. She receives good support from Dae Al Hilali as sister Selma. Khaled Abdulraheem is also decent as their father. The film is stronger for not taking a potential romantic route. Instead, al-Mansour focuses on protagonist’s ambition and growing confidence in her ability to make a change. 

The Perfect Candidate is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

BFI London Film Festival 2019 Launch

This morning saw the launch of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. In its 63rd year, the festival is screening 229 feature films, including 28 world premieres. Here are some highlights from the festival programme…

Headline Galas

The opening and closing films for the BFI London Film Festival 2019 had already been announced. The festival opens with the European premiere of Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. An adaptation of the Dickens’ classic, the film stars Dev Patel, Tilda Swinton, and Hugh Laurie. Martin Scorsese‘s hotly-anticipated The Irishman closes the festival. There is an embarrassment of riches among the other headline galas, including Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, Marielle Heller’s (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, and Michael Winterbottom’s Greed, starring Steve Coogan and Isla Fisher.

Strand Galas and Special Presentations

This year, films screening as part of the Strand Galas include Robert Eggers’ (The Witch) The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. The Dare Gala is Mirrah Folks’ debut feature Judy & Punch, a fairy tale starring Mia Wasikowska. Among the Special Presentations are Takashi Miike’s First Love, and Bombay Rose, a hand-drawn animated feature from Gitanjali Rao.

Official Competition

Among the ten features in Official Competition at the London Film Festival 2019 are Haifaa Al-Mansour’s (Wadjda) The Perfect Candidate, about a young doctor who challenges Saudi Arabia’s strict social codes. Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d stars Maxine Peake and Charles Dance, and is about a woman living with her puritanical husband in 17th century Shropshire. The Documentary Competition features Rubika Shah’s White Riot, about the Rock Against Racism movement, and Lauren Greenfield The Kingmaker, which focuses on Imelda Marcos. The First Feature Competition includes Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, a drama starring Eliza Scanlon and Ben Mendelsohn.

Strands

The eleven thematic programme strands are back once more at the London Film Festival 2019. The Love strand includes La Belle Époque, Nicolas Bedos’ drama about an illustrator who uses technology to replay the past, and Ga-young Jeong’s Heart. The Debate strand is particularly strong this year with Citizen K (Alex Gibney‘s documentary on Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Chinonye Chukwu’s Sundance winner Clemency, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, and Scott Z Burns’ The Report, starring Adam Driver. Comedies in the Laugh strand includes Billie Piper’s directorial debut Rare Beasts, whilst Wash Westmoreland’s Earthquake Bird in the Thrill strand stars Alicia Vikander in an 1980s Tokyo-set thriller. Cannes winner The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is among the films in the Journey category.

The Dare strand features animated coming-of-age tale I Lost My Body and Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, about a Jewish boy on a journey home during wartime. The Cult strand includes Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge and Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium, with Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. Also in this category is Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, a HP Lovecraft adaptation starring Nicolas Cage and Joely Richardson. The Experimenta strand includes Brad Butler and Noorafshan Mizra’s Ruptures, whilst Create includes Midge Costin’s documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. Two highlights of the Family strand are Edmunds Jansons’ Jacob, Mimmi and the Talking Dogs and Lorenzo Mattotti’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion. Finally, classics that are showing as part of the Treasures programme include David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price.

The BFI London Film Festival 2019 runs from 2nd-13th October. The full programme can be viewed here.

Film Review: Wadjda

WADJDAAn excellent debut by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Wadjda is warm, illuminating and engaging.

Ten-year-old Wadjda lives with her mother in a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is fun-loving and entrepreneurial, and when she sees the bike her friend Abdullah is riding, she wants one for herself. But in her conservative environment, her plan is met with disapproval…

The first feature-length film made by a Saudi female director, Wadjda is an absorbing tale which lifts the curtain on a slice of everyday life in Riyadh.

The story is well crafted by writer and director Al-Mansour. A fairly simple tale of a girl wanting a bike is given character depth thanks to the added layers. There is the cultural context and setting of the film, the added dimension of the family, plus Wadjda’s friendship with Abdullah.

The title character is likeable and is sufficiently well developed to make viewers care about her story. Rebelling from restraints and being herself instead of confirming makes the character more endearing.

The film is illuminating in its depiction of Saudi life; something not often exhibited in film. The film reveals the culture of Saudi Arabia and the restrictions for females in a way that does not preach, deliver an overtly political message, or is explicit in its criticism. Instead, the film allows viewers to draw their own conclusions. The central narrative of a girl wanting to get a bike is always paramount.

Wadjda offers a view of family life which appears both ordinary and removed from certain Western conventions. There are aspects that most will be able to recognise or identify with, and those that are particular to the film’s setting. Given the struggles and cultural confines faced by Wadjda, most viewers will admire her more as the film progresses.

Performances are good throughout, particularly in the lead role given that it is Waad Mohammed’s debut. Wadjda wonderfully told, well paced, and is able to engender an emotional reaction from viewers. Haifaa Al-Mansour is one to watch.