Viewed this week, three films about female lives that in different ways present the difficulties of balancing a personal and professional life.
Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Beyond the Lights went without a cinema release in the UK last year, despite its excellent cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover) and pertinent plot – it concerns a young R&B singer struggling with fame and self-perception – and critics felt that this might be due to an expectation of the audience’s racial bias, among other reasons (The best films you won’t see in cinemas, Telegraph). Now on Netflix, the film is well worth seeking out. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, coached by her mother (Driver) from a young age to succeed at all costs in the tough music business, who is on the brink of releasing an album that will ‘change everything.’ Clearly unhappy with the enormous pressure, after an awards show, Noni attempts suicide but is talked down from her hotel balcony by the police officer (Nate Parker) assigned to her. What follows is Noni’s uncertain navigation of her future – everything has changed for her, but her mother/manager ignores her internal struggle.
Beyond the Lights isn’t without cliché, its bodyguard/singer central pairing is very familiar, but what’s refreshing is the way Prince-Blythewood creates a world for her authentic characters that feels utterly convincing and deeply sympathetic to Noni’s journey towards emancipation. Taught at a pivotal, early stage in life that only winning is of value, regardless of what is costs, Noni must learn to value herself first, instead. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is immensely affecting, as she balances Noni’s public and private personas with skill.
Another enjoyable performance is at the heart of Brooklyn, now nominated for three Oscars (Best Film, Best lead actress*, Best adapted screenplay) and six BAFTA’s (Best film, lead actress, supporting actress, best screenplay, best costume design and best make-up). Adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, the 1950’s set Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who moves to New York from Ireland to work, leaving behind her sister, Rose and mother. Eilis, at first homesick, eventually settles into her life working at a department store, taking night classes in accounting and living at Mrs Keogh’s (Julie Walters) boarding house, all arranged by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Eilis even falls in love, with Tony (Emory Cohen), and their tender romance is the final element that will bond her to her new home.
Again, it’s the expectations of others that Eilis must rebel against. When drawn home, it appears to Eilis that the life she never thought she’d have in Ireland might be possible after all, and director John Crowley makes much of her homeland’s charms, just as her friends and relatives appear desperate for her to stay. As in Beyond the Lights, it’s the search for freedom that is essential to the character. Though both films have romantic elements, neither Noni or Eilis are motivated entirely by their relationships with men, rather it’s their desire to discover a life that will be true to their own ideals and values that drives each narrative.
In David O. Russell’s Joy, with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, the struggle for financial success plays a greater part in the story, where Lawrence’s divorced mother of two pursues her dream as the inventor of a self-wringing mop. Living with her permanently bed-located mother and her ex-husband and father in the basement, whilst maintaining a job as a travel agent with an unreliable car, much is made of Joy’s chaotic life. Like David Lynch before him (but with half as much style), Russell uses the camp of soap operas as an analogue for Joy’s messy life, where the stakes are high and a large cast of characters are all invested in the outcome of her invention.
There’s lots to enjoy here- Virginia Madsen’s affectionate performance as Joy’s mother Terry, the lolloping pace, which seems to progress the film’s plot in spirals, and of course, just the presence of Isabella Rossellini. There’s something a little bit bonkers about Joy, too though, and not in a way that feels purposeful, as was the case with the delightful and thoughtful I Heart Huckabees. It’s an American Dream tale after all, and the many set-backs Joy faces feel somehow artificial, (but maybe that’s the point) as though she must overcome an ever increasing number of hurdles in order to truly appreciate being able to have power hair and wear a power suit and be the entrepreneur her granny always knew she would be. Where Joy fails and Brooklyn and Beyond the Lights succeed, is in giving a sense of who their central characters are, rather than just being an accumulation of personal struggles.
Also watched: Slow West (John Maclean), which was somewhat unconvincing.