Monday, 22 May 2017

Miss Sloane (2017) (Review)


Miss Sloane. Ah. A release on my radar for a few months now but delayed in the UK because, while it was generally considered decent, it threatened to be cannibalised by the more buzzy, more successful award season releases at the beginning of the year - a fate that befell the political thriller in the US. Now, roughly six months after its stateside debut, it makes its way (in a limited capacity) into UK theatres for Jessica Chastain to compel audiences all over again. Is the Golden Globe-nominated film any good and, more importantly, was it worth the wait?

Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is a cutthroat lobbyist approached by Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) to lead the opposition of the proposed Heaton-Harris bill that would expand background checks on gun purchases in order to prevent their outright ban. When she laughs them, and their idea to target the message specifically to women, out of the room, she is then approached by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) to lead the effort to support the bill. Ultimately agreeing and taking most of her staff with her, she begins to mount the case, with the support of her team and Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), attempting to build support and win crucial votes for the divisive bill. The film not only examines both the personal and wider politics of lobbying but also considers the motivations and human effects of gun control, demonstrating a system operated through moves and countermoves, a notion that Chastain (and the screenwriter) proposes to us in the brilliantly effective cold open. As soon as she opens her mouth at the beginning of the film and says the following, I knew the film had me well and truly in its grasp; "lobbying is about foresight, about anticipating your opponent's moves, and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition and plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It's about make sure you surprise them - and they don't surprise you".

Saying Jessica Chastain is a brilliant actress is like saying water is wet or the Pope is Catholic - it is a widely-accepted fact that no one can dispute, with just a glance into her impressive filmography acting as concrete proof. Here though, she delivers her best performance in quite some time; it is truly shocking that this is the same woman who played the ditsy and guileless Celia Rae Foote in The Help. She is absolutely transformative and utterly captivating, playing the titular Sloane with an unwavering determination and grit. She is a firecracker, as ever, detailing her transformation with an icy resolve and skilful precision that ensnares you in her grasp immediately. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a startling performance as Esme, a confident, emotionally-driven character in the relatively emotionless world of lobbying. On mid-point development, performed so excellently by a commanding Mbatha-Raw and a well-capitulated Chastain, is emotionally enriching and pushes the narrative forward to another twist that reminds audiences of the discordant nature of their work, remembering to place the human effects at the centre. They work as an excellent team with an intriguing dynamic that absolutely calls for a spin-off. Director John Madden is a really capable talent, crafting a piece that avoids feeling flamboyant or indulgent, firmly allowing Miss Sloane to lead the way. His direction, much like Sloane herself, is sophisticated and sleek, calculated and often cold, establishing an atmosphere that remains intense and alluring throughout.

Miss Sloane The Character is fleshed out well by screenwriter Jonathan Perera, crafting scenes that showcase both her talent and poise in her day-to-day role, as well as some more farcade-shattering moments taking place behind closed doors. He peppers these instances in every now and then to develop and humanise the seemingly unbreakable figure, a notion that only makes us root for her further. While very little time is afforded to secondary characters, largely painting them with broad strokes and stereotypes, it allows Sloane to grow and evolve over the course of the brisk 132 minute runtime. In fact, by the time the credits were rolling, I wanted to continue following this character - understanding her backstory and seeing where she goes next. It takes skill to install that desire in an audience, particularly after over two hours in their company - but Perera, and Chastain of course, are up to the task and exceed in winning audiences round. Structurally, the film benefits from the in medias res technique utilised and it actually works to the film's advantage - usually, it is my pet hate in cinema (as you can see here, here and here) but it pays off as well as it did in last year's Sully, two rare examples of the technique not completely failing a film. The script is taut and tense and riddled with some expertly crafted dialogue that captures the natural prowess of Miss Sloane, impressing continually.

Moving on to the narrative, and while it can be incredibly predictable at times, it nevertheless thrills.
A central twist revealed at the end of the film, ironically, appears both clearly signposted and emerging completely out of the blue, borrowing a well-worn convention from the thriller genre but failing to do the leg work in building up to the moment by its own accord; that said, when the big moment arrives, it is executed in such a pleasing way that it left me with a grin plastered across my face and in awe of Sloane and her wile. It is a really difficult and contradictory thing to explain - as disappointed as I was with the build-up, willing the film to delve further into the character of Jane (a fantastic Alison Pill) and her relationship with Elizabeth, the powerful sequence creates an irrestiable charge that feeds into the core of the piece - but the effect could be heightened further if the film did a little more legwork in the lead up to the moment. While still one of my favourite moments of the year, with a little more narrative weight placed into the reveal, it could have been even stronger than it is in its current form.

Miss Sloane is a mainly satisfying watch and despite a handful of flaws (mainly in the way of narrative predictability, as well as underdeveloped supporting characters), is undeniably thrilling, powerful and potent example of film-making. It will not be for everyone with the political aspect likely to put people off (and likely, but certainly unjustly, explains its Academy snub earlier this year) - but for those looking for a robust, sharp and sophisticated female-led thriller, Miss Sloane is the place to start. In less skilful hands, this could be a disaster, but Chastain is one of this generation's brightest and most talented stars, and so you are compelled to watch the mesmerising life of Miss Sloane unfold on screen, with a desperation to see more of this scathing character and the empire she - and the film-makers - have built in such an accomplished, masterful way.

(8/10)

Summary: Miss Sloane, masterful and enthralling - both the character and film, that is - overcomes its minor flaws to deliver a sharp, thrilling piece of cinema that cements Jessica Chastain's position as one of the time's greatest, most consistent actresses.

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