Haifaa Al Mansour’s powerful satire of political and social mores has proved a hot prospect, an official selection at Venice and Sundance, plus the accolade of being deemed ‘watchable’ by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. The director of Wadjda’s return to her native Saudi Arabia is a thorny look at the country’s backwards male-female balance, and reveals a healthy cynicism about the current status quo. Things might change as a result, so watching The Perfect Candidate bestows upon the viewer a healthy feeling of potentially facilitating a positive result simply by watching it; wondering what kind of mind is behind a hijab should be a thing of the past.
One of the first things one notices is the cars; the wheel-rims are always caked with mud. This detail is important as Dr Maryam (Mila Alzahrani) works in a clinic where the road is badly in need of tarmacking. A series of coincidences lead to her standing as a candidate in the local political arena, not easy when women are forbidden to address men directly. Maryam does so through a television set, but the results are not encouraging; prospective voters are more interesting in characterising her by her father’s fame as a musician.
The inciting incident is key here; Maryam is attempting to attend a conference in Dubai, but can’t fly because she does not have the active permission of a male guardian. This law is, due to shifting political sands, no longer in force today (April 2020), but the attitudes behind it remain. The distinction is important; when the road to the clinic finally gets repaired, Maryam remains resolute; she’s found her identity beyond her profession, but in her community. ‘I’m just doing my job’ she humbly tells a patient, but she’s thwarted regularly by the attitudes she encounters, and these attitudes stem from the legal conventions of her country.
At a time when healthcare workers are deservedly lionised, it’s worth noting that Haifaa Al Mansour’s film shows their opinions being disparaged due to casual and inbuilt prejudice; a revealing scene finds Maryam and her sister watching a political campaign video by a candidate called Basil. ‘The sun is in his eyes,’ the girls exclaim, but that’s just the first of a number of complaints about the clumsiness in terms of production featured in Basil’s faulty video. It’s a familiar question; why should competent women stand in the shade to allow incompetent men their moment in the sun?
There’s an underlying aggression in The Perfect Candidate that may put patronising male critics off, but is justified by the portrayal of the world featured here. Compared with the director’s previous film, the laughable dud that was Mary Shelley, this is a real return to form, a simple and effective drama that makes a succinct point; why should anyone accept living in a skewed, unfair world when we have the power to make a better one?