Friday 19 May 2017

Jessica Chastain turns in a bravura performance as a ruthless lobbyist in the twisty, sprawling Miss Sloane

Another fine Jess: Chastain is on sparkling form in Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane
Director: John Madden
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Running time: 2hrs 12mins

Miss Sloane? I wonder if 'Miss Holmes' might have been a better title for this drama about a ruthless Washington DC lobbyist who uses her almost supernatural powers of second-guessing and brinkmanship to take on America's notoriously powerful gun lobby.

Building your film around a brilliant, driven, and not entirely likeable, woman is refreshing but at times this is like watching an (overlong) episode of Sherlock. Elizabeth Sloane (played with considerable brio by Jessica Chastain) isn't just the smartest person in the room, you wonder if she might just be the smartest person on the planet. Professor Moriarty would have given up and gone home after five minutes, utterly worn out by her constant tricks and manipulations.

In fact, Miss Sloane may have worked better as a short, sharp character study or more of an ensemble piece than what we have here - a film as twisty and sprawling as an entire season of House Of Cards rammed into two hours and change. Yes, it's a solidly entertaining piece of work but also an exhausting one, its breathless pace and throw-enough-mud-at-a-wall approach to storytelling (It's a thriller! It's a courtroom drama! It's a political satire! It's a heartfelt takedown of the gun lobby! It's a warts 'n' all character study!) really is an awful lot to take in. The 'ta-da' ending is also preposterous, although plainly foreshadowed right at the very beginning of the film and occasionally throughout.

Sloane is the movie's blessing and curse. Yes, she's fascinating (and I like the fact her backstory remains mostly untold) but director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love) and debutant screenwriter Jonathan Perera are clearly a bit in love with her, and I'm not sure its healthy. Making a conservative political lobbyist your film's heroine and focal point is a smart, counterintuitive move but it works only up to a point as the refusal to give anyone else elbow room - Gugu Mbatha-Raw's junior lobbyist is the closest we get to a fully-formed supporting character - is a clear failing. Worse still, the film's anti-gun lobby message ultimately gets a bit lost as events pivot to accommodate a big courtroom finale in its concluding half-hour, all in service to wonder woman Sloane herself.

Ruthless operator: Do not mess with Miss Sloane

There's also a nice set-up here, as the employees of a right-wing lobbying group (including Sloane) have to go and work with far more liberal counterparts, that isn't utilised enough. It could have been fertile ground for comedy - as well as reinforcing the notion that gun control isn't just an issue for the left - but, apart from a few moments, isn't developed at all. With little to work with, Mark Strong puts in a decent supporting shift as head lobbyist Rodolfo Schmidt, who persuades Sloane to quit her job and help push a gun control bill through the senate. I also admired the creative team's restraint in not throwing him into a predictable relationship with Chastain's character. Elsewhere, though, Sam Waterston is little more than a one-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain, and the brilliant John Lithgow is reduced to a plot device as a weak and venal senator.

Chastain deserves a round of applause just for getting to grips with a script so talky even Aaron Sorkin might have been moved to put his red pen through a good chunk of it. Perera doesn't quite have The West Wing creator's facility with language or ear for a truly memorable zinger but does a fine job of making Sloane and the milieu she operates in believable, as well as throwing in the odd decent one liner ("Career suicide's not so bad when you consider the alternative is suicide by career") and a couple of genuinely powerful character scenes (these mostly involve Chastain and Mbatha-Raw).

Madden is a very experienced filmmaker and, with so much going on, needed to be. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director just about keeps all his plates spinning, displaying a real facility for making conversational scenes pop and a nice eye for visual symbolism (we frequently see Sloane's reflection in mirrors and other shiny surfaces, suggesting there's something else going on we're not entirely privy to).

For Chastain, Sloane marks the coming together of two of her best roles - the permanently exhausted, obsessional Maya from Kathryn Bigelow's bravura Zero Dark Thirty, and badass Anna Morales from JC Chandor's underrated A Most Violent Year. However, her titular character is like a super-sized version of those two - a speed-talking, quick-thinking, pill-popping, power-dressing alpha female. It's an astonishing performance from an actress who just gets better, although her choice of roles continues to raise the occasional eyebrow (The Zookeeper's Wife, The Huntsman: Winter's War).

Rating: WW for the film + an extra W for Chastain's performance = WWW

Miss Sloane is in UK cinemas now

Ratings guide
WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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