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The Perfect Candidate review - seeking status for women in Saudi | reviews, news & interviews

The Perfect Candidate review - seeking status for women in Saudi

The Perfect Candidate review - seeking status for women in Saudi

Haifaa Al Mansour follows 'Wadjda' with a new tale of female independence in Saudi Arabia

Unveiled, uncompromising: Mila Alzahrani as Maryam

Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour is back on home territory with her new film, and you’ll recognise much here from her characterful 2012 debut Wadjda, itself the first-ever feature to emerge from her home country.

That was about challenging the restrictions that the culture of Saudi Arabia imposed on women, and some really have gone in the intervening years – women can now drive, for one. As if to mark that progress, the opening scene of The Perfect Candidate has Mansour’s doctor heroine, Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), her face hidden except for the eyes by a black niqab, behind the wheel as she approaches the clinic where she works. Her journey is hampered by the lamentable state of the approach road, something that will inspire her to take an almost accidental decision to enter local politics and fight a single-issue campaign for election to the local council to have it improved.

The issues thrown up by this spontaneous – some who are close to her don’t hesitate to call it foolhardy – gesture reveals much about the structure of the world that surrounds her: it’s a society that appears to be allowing, arguably even encouraging change on a number of fronts but where levels of default traditionalism nevertheless continue to dominate. Mansour brings considerable acuteness of observation to her picture of Maryam’s professional (pictured below) and personal life, especially the dynamics of her family. She’s the highly accomplished lead physician at the local clinic, but the prejudice she encounters from male patients (and even her colleagues) can be dismissive to be point of insulting.THE PERFECT CANDIDATE workLife at home is centred on the close bond she has with her two sisters – the relationship with Selma, played by Saudi social media star Dhay (pictured below, right), is especially good – and a rather more distant connection to her recently widowed father, a professional musician in a country where live performance has many no less traditionalist opponents (his story provides the film's supporting plot, which can feel rather too obviously tacked on). His late wife had been an acclaimed wedding performer who also stretched the boundaries of social convention, while he’s the lead singer in an oud ensemble, and the energetic Selma a wedding planner and photographer. The elaborate ceremonies that she organises, at least the women-only side of them, reveal aspects of Saudi life that may seem unexpected: when male company is absent, the ladies take off their formal garments to reveal the latest fashions at ceremonies compèred by an almost Grace Jones-like Khadija Moaz, who chants a pop-style refrain “There is no God but Allah”.

Learning her campaigning tactics rather on the hoof, Maryam soon confronts local realities. The fundraising evening that Selma lays on for women, which doubles as an abaya fashion show, brings home how the concept of female solidarity doesn’t really exist in these parts: even those who offer support in principal hint they will defer to their husbands when it comes to voting. When she’s patronised by the gathering of male voters she’s trying to address, via video link, she breaks through that screen distance to speak to them directly. Maryam is best when her instinctive reaction against hypocrisy drives her to speak from the heart: she appears on local television, without headscarf, and when the presenter assumes that, as a woman, her agenda must be defined by issues like gardens, her forcefulness again breaks through inspiringly.

Mansour draws entirely natural performances from her cast There’s genuine humour along the way as Maryam’s trials mount, and Mansour draws entirely natural performances from her cast, the central nucleus of which is excellent. So it’s something of a disappointment that the look of the film – its style could be called “ethnic naturalism” – and the work of German cinematographer Patrick Orth can appear unexpectedly flat and basic. More importantly, the story development feels on occasions distinctly formulaic, the sense of sheer freshness that was such a revelation in Wadjda missing.

The issue of “home territory” presents a challenge for any director who moves between cultures: of necessity, Mansour learned her film skills away from Saudi Arabia, and she now lives in America. She followed up on Wadjda with the English-language biopic Mary Shelley, which came as a huge disappointment to many who had so relished her debut (a rom-com for Netflix came after that). It felt like a badly misjudged new direction. There’s a sense, too, in The Perfect Candidate of things rather being played by the book, of plotting boxes being ticked, that suggests considerable familiarity with Hollywood; the result feels detrimental to the essence of the story.  THE PERFECT CANDIDATE sistersYou wonder quite what audience Mansour was aiming for: the local one – another of the developments Saudi Arabia has seen in recent years has been the opening of cinemas there – or an international one, and even in that latter category this Saudi-German coproduction seems divided between ambitions typical to arthouse and those that reach out much more widely. There is closeness of detail here, but it seems diluted somehow by the seeking of a broad common denominator. Five stars for the film's ensemble playing, fewer for the shaping of its wider canvas.

Watch the trailer for The Perfect Candidate

There’s a sense of things being played by the book, of plotting boxes being ticked


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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