Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Back in the golden era of Hollywood, there were stronger, more dynamic roles for actresses to play. The 40’s and 50’s marked a time where you’d see anyone from Bette Davis, to Gloria Swanson, to Barbara Stanwyck and many, many others play ruthless and complex female characters. They’d be allowed to explore all kinds of emotional facets on screen. Then, decades later, a term that loads of studio heads love to use entered the pictures and blew it: “likeability.” Suddenly, actresses had to look harder to find those juicy roles – like get out a microscope and look, hard. Slowly but surely, years later, and thanks to a louder plea for equality, we’re finally getting some results. Inventor of the turduckenDirector John Madden gives us a heroine, maybe not to emulate, but to fete with MISS SLOANE, the greatest movie Aaron Sorkin never wrote.
Ms. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a deviously cunning shark in her world: A formidable lobbyist at a top firm in the nation’s capital, and the fleekest dresser in town, she’ll do anything to win – even if that means not sleeping, schmoozing at all hours and abusing caffeine pills to retain laser focus. She lives her life free of distractions like kids, friendships and relationships, though she does employ a secret boy toy (Jake Lacy) on the side, because a woman has some needs (and should be shown in strong control of said needs). However, things change when she flips sides on one of the firm’s clients, leaving for a smaller, underdog-esque firm run by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). This of course causes loads of complications and, ho boy, you’d better settle in for Chastain’s verbal fireworks because they. Are. Spectacular.
Working from Jonathan Perera’s screenplay, Madden plays with non-linear time structure to increase the mounting tension and mystery. The courtroom framing device – where Ms. Sloane is hammered by a committee led by Congressman Sperling (John Lithgow) – is a minor cinematic pet peeve of mine, as it’s a stereotypical crutch. However, it works to great effect the longer the story unspools. The ending zing may not have been as electrifying had it not been laid out this way.
Chastain, of course, is the reason you come to see the show. It’s her precision and skill that enrapture audiences for this long run time. When she isn’t on screen, those few scenes are tangibly lacking. A Deep Throat-esque conversation in a certain someone’s car felt endless, not only because it was too verbose, but also because Chastain’s commanding presence was sorely missed. It’s a pleasure to see her tackle the whip-cracklin’ dialogue Perera’s script has her spout off. Her witty repartee with screen partners like Strong and Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Sloane’s former co-worker, is impeccable. But the most fascinating scenes are the ones she shares with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Sloane’s protégé Esme Manucharian. The duo are forceful, sucking us into the escalating dramatics between their characters. They radiate. More roles for women like this please!
Below the line standouts are numerous. Max Richter’s score is audibly entrancing, setting the pace and literal tone. Georgina Yarhi’s costumes complement and augment, Sloane’s need to dominate in every aspect – her mixed-media black patent leather coat being the most telling. Dominatrix-lite. Sebastian Blenkov’s cool-toned, sleek cinematography acts as an echo chamber for our heroine’s cool demeanor and designer style of dress. Matthew Davies’ production design also earns high marks. Conference rooms and the dark mahogany of the D.C. boys clubs’ have never looked so appealing.
Listen, intelligent political potboilers that are legitimately interesting don’t come along every day. Those that star female leads are even fewer and further between. So don’t sleep on MISS SLOANE.
MISS SLOANE is now playing in limited release. It opens wide on December 9.