Dir: Haifaa al-Mansour. Starring: Mila Al Zahrani, Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Khalid Abdulraheem. PG cert, 104 mins
In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour became the first Saudi woman to ever direct a feature film. To make Wadjda, which told the story of an 10-year-old girl who dreams of owning a bike, she had to sit in the back of a van and give orders through a walkie-talkie – she couldn’t be seen mixing with male crew members. Following a double dose of middling English-language films – a Mary Shelley biopic and Netflix romcom Nappily Ever After – al-Mansour has turned her gaze back to her homeland for The Perfect Candidate. Like Wadjda, it’s a film about a single-minded individual defying patriarchal oppression. But for the director, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in Saudi Arabia by courageous women just like her – even if those small changes could trigger a brutal backlash.
Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) is a doctor whose clinic is only accessible by dirt road. Whenever it rains, the route becomes clogged by a swampy, glutinous mud that she’s forced to drag her patients through just so they can get treatment – the clinic has the one emergency room for miles. In a desperate bid to get her travel visa renewed so that she can attend a high-profile medical conference, Maryam feigns interest in running for the local council in order to land a meeting with a government official (incidentally, a relative). Then she has a realisation. A political campaign might not actually be such a terrible idea – in fact, it might be the only way to get the road paved.
Maryam doesn’t see herself as any kind of feminist pioneer. Her motivations are practical, not symbolic. But the people around her are bullheaded. To them, nothing exists beyond her gender. When she makes an appearance on local TV, the presenter assumes her policies deal only in women’s issues “like gardens, for instance”. His dialogue sits neatly on the border between reality and parody, as al-Mansour and Brad Niemann’s script exposes the kind of mundane absurdity that underpins any patriarchal society. Female solidarity is rare: her older sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali) is supportive, but her younger one Sara (Nora Al Awadh) loves to whine about all the scandals she’ll cause. When Maryam tries to appeal directly to the women in her community, the response is sympathetic but non-committal. Most of them either don’t vote or capitulate to their husbands.
Al-Mansour’s approach is forthright and free from poeticism, much like Maryam herself. Patrick Orth’s framing never strays from the conventional. Zahrani, meanwhile, doesn’t try to soften her character in order to make her more likeable. She delivers her speeches sharply and with confidence, her brow furrowed in concentration. She’s unfazed by the misogyny she experiences because it’s already been woven into each moment of her existence.
Progress here is as unyielding as the mud outside Maryam’s work. The film might open on a scene of her driving a car (something women could only legally do as of 2018), but she turns up to the hospital only to have a male patient refuse point blank to be treated by her. He’d rather die than let go of his beliefs. But in spite of all this, al-Mansour refuses to let her film wallow in despair. Maryam can’t change the world, but her actions cause their own ripples.
‘The Perfect Candidate’ will be available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Modern Films on 27 March
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies