Mixed media: film
directed by Philippa Lowthorpe
written by Rebecca Frayn, Gaby Chiappe
A young woman sits in a waiting room, reading. The book – Eric Hobsbawm’s Labouring Men – prompts the obvious question: ‘What about the women?’ And we soon see. They’re apparently nowhere. She’s called and sits on an isolated chair facing half-a-dozen middle-aged men comfortably secure behind a line of tables. Sally is a candidate to study history at London University and some of the panel have already pencilled in marks for her looks. They press her on her background. She has no A-levels, only a diploma from Ruskin, the trades union-sponsored college in Oxford, and she’s a single mum. But she’s cool, focused, and articulate – and gets in.
She studies hard, and keeps up her activism. At the first women’s liberation conference at Ruskin, she organizes women cleaners; with a bunch of arty anarchists, she decides to attack, with paint and flour-bombs the Miss World contest, which, in 1970 attracted the world’s largest TV audience.
Lowthorpe, the only woman to have won a BAFTA for directing, has pulled together a drama based on real people and events that’s entertaining and serious, accessible and informative. It celebrates a brilliant resonant moment. It gets the time, and the tensions in the women’s movement. It doesn’t neglect social class or race. It’s respectful of the contestants, their backgrounds and ambitions.
Its weakness is that it’s just too nice. Entrepreneur Eric Morley is a too-likeable comedy turn. And Bob Hope’s ‘comedy’ may have masked a sad man desperate for approval, but he was even so an arch-imperialist, predatory sexist and savage racist.
The Perfect Candidate
directed and co-written by Haifaa Al-Mansour
What’s Dr Maryam to do when she’s really had enough? When her patients can’t get across the mud swamp that routinely blocks the approach road to the clinic? When an old man, injured in a fall, rages and refuses to be touched or treated because the doctor is a woman? When she can’t travel to a job interview because her father hasn’t renewed his formal permission for her to travel? Dr Maryam decides to run for a seat on the town council – no stroll in the park, you would think, in Saudi Arabia – but at least you might get the rotten road tarmacked.
Al-Mansour was the first Saudi woman to direct a feature, which she sometimes had to direct while concealed in a van. Wadjda, released in 2013, about a 10-year-old girl’s determined efforts to get a bike, was inspiring, partly because her pursuit was pretty bumpy. It had an emotional rawness, issuing from conflict and unfulfilled desire. We saw, for example, Wadjda and her disconsolate mum watch, from a distance, her father’s second marriage ceremony. The Perfect Candidate is in some ways like Wadjda, but it lacks the bite.
It exposes some of the current ills – idiotic, sexist television presenters, travel restrictions. It celebrates new freedoms, such as musical performance and women driving (though, in real life, the women activists who campaigned for this remain in prison). It’s revealing on character and relationships, especially within the family. But its weakness is the lack of opposition – apart from two angry old men. Her electoral rival never features, so it’s all too obtuse. Too gentle.