VOD film review: The Perfect Candidate
Written by Arthur
8/10 Rating 8/10
Haifaa al-Mansour returns to Saudi Arabia for this stirring portrait of resistance and resilience.
Reading time: 2 mins
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour Cast: Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Mila Al Zahrani, Khalid Abdulraheem Certificate: PG Watch the Perfect Candidate online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / BFI Player
It’s been eight years since Haifaa al-Mansour broke onto the international stage with her remarkable Wadjda, a coming-of-age story about a young girl in Riyadh. That was the first ever feature film made in Saudi Arabia – and filmed by a women, no less, a process that involves covertly giving directions without being spotted and arrested. If making a movie was a daring, inspiring act of rebellion, Haifaa al-Mansour’s second Saudi-set film (she has since directed both Mary Shelley and Netflix flick Nappily Ever After) charts an act that’s equally incendiary: a woman running for government.
A woman driving – something that has been made legal since Wadjda’s release – introduces us to Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a smart, savvy doctor who works in Riyadh. There, she wears a veil as well as a stethoscope, and faces daily putdowns and prejudices because of her gender. That, in itself, is enraging to witness, but when it comes in the face of her trying to help others, it’s enough to drive her to drastic measures.
Refused a travel permit to go to a medical conference, unlike her male counterparts, she decides to stand in the local elections – initially, as a way to get around the travel ban, but soon as something much more meaningful. The men around her inevitably don’t listen, instead mocking her because of her parents (two musicians, one a wedding singer, one a touring bandsman). The women, meanwhile, cheer her on, attend her rallies and, in the case of her relatives (the quietly nuanced Dae al-Hilali and Nora al-Awadh), film her campaign video – but will they actually turn out to vote?
Her campaign focuses on a decidedly non-contentious issue – paving the road to the hospital, to benefit everyone – but her story is repeatedly framed by society around her gender not around her professional credentials. Haifaa al-Mansour captures all of this with a knowing familiarity, backed up by her signature naturalism and vivid eye for everyday details of cultural bias. Mila Al Zahrani, meanwhile, is a magnetic lead presence, balancing frustration and a fierce determination with a well-rehearsed calm exterior.
Backed by the evocative music of her father – Maryam’s family, refreshingly, aren’t a restricting force holding her back – the result is a stirring portrait of a doctor demanding recognition and respect, and a hopeful rallying cry to gradually change voters’ minds, one person at a time.