Maleficent – Female power and the complete failure of critical analysis. (Film Review)
This review will include spoilers, which means I can’t post it on IMDB or most other places, but I can’t speak frankly about the problems of the films critique without spoilers, so I’m going with the spoilers. Be warned.
Without any doubt, the most astonishing thing about the film Maleficent is the appalling inability of contemporary critics to accurately review and critique the film. Surely, if there is a problem with the relationship between females and film, then critics need to become aware of the part they play in that relationship, how to recognise it, and how to examine it. This goes far beyond a films ability to pass the Bechdel test, or our abilities to catoegorise films as “girl power” or “feminist”. It includes the applause of ineptitude when it is masculine and the refusal of greatness when it is feminine, and the way all of us – film makers and critics alike – are keeping the film medium conservative and worst of all, profoundly dull. In reading the early reviews over the last few days of Maleficent, I have been horrified to see its ratings on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator reducing hour by hour, primarily due to completely inaccurate judgements about “rape metaphors” and Maleficent’s character being little more than a jealous woman, who is scorned by her lover – neither of which feature. When Maleficent curses the young Aurora to a hell where she has to wait for “true love’s kiss” it is a male fantasy to imagine failure of love at the core. It is loss of freedom, not a selfish lover that has cursed Maleficent. It is not the lost kiss she laments, and anyone who thinks this is a rape metaphor is trapped in the grandeur and unyeilding power of the phallus – none of this is in Maleficent. Here is the spoiler that, apparently, even the critics who have seen the film didn’t pick up: Maleficent has her wings removed, and that is the source of her anger and revenge. It is the removal of her power. It is no small thing to say I have been shocked by the irrepressible drive of critics to turn this film into something about jilted love – or unbelievably, genital mutilation – when it never even touches on it – it is simply that she trusts a man, and feels “something” never defined, who then slices off her wings. The wings are all she ever refers to, she never claims to have loved Stefan, but there is a relentless drive in critics to redefine this lucid metaphor as insipid and weak, using a plot line that never appears in the film.
Maleficent doesn’t have a rape metaphor, and if anyone knew even the slightest thing about ancient Greek mythology, they would recognise the Goddess Nike leading her battalions, a remarkably progressive notion of female power and a stunning evocation of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Angelina Jolie is worthy of an academy award for her portrayal of one of the most progressive female characters I have ever seen in film, and I can’t think of another actress with the beauty, talent, screen presence and incredible intelligence it takes to produce such a performance. The scene of her pain and humiliation is shocking and desperately sad. Most of all, I am astounded that this film has come from the Disney studios. It goes way past Frozen, past Thelma and Louise, past all previous incarnations of the powerful female that Jolie herself has brought to the screen, and that one of my most loathed companies (primarily because of the horrible way they portray females) has come up with the goods so clearly, so beautifully and so fearlessly has truly surprised me. I always expected to be “wowed” by Maleficent, its production values, and fine cast, and that stunning Lana del Rey song, but I had no idea I was in for something so progressively in touch with a post feminist image of power, and so ahead of its time. Yes there is one particular thematic repetition from Frozen, but this is not the problem it is touted to be, and I ask you honestly, when has this kind of thing been a problem for male oriented super hero films?
Maleficent is the story of feminism rising from its ashes of revenge, reclaiming its viciously hacked off wings, and flying to the sun in a way that Icarus could only dream of. It is the story of woman going through feminist paces – first beauty, then innocence, then affection leading to the death of power, disbelief, anger, revenge, rage, withdrawal, sadness, self-awareness, inner peace, the battle for the self and finally – something we don’t quite have yet – victory. The Victory of Nike, more properly evoked in the earlier battle scenes, when Maleficent flies through the field of battle to lead her troops to victory.
She is also the dramatic representation of the guardian angel, reduced to the dueling shoulder angels, the battle of the self with the self as one fights to unite the people around, out of love and harmony versus the right to assert personal control and satisfaction, even if it means the suffering of some. Maleficent is a refusal of the post enlightenment reliance on rationalism in the place of theology – she is an entirely new breed of creature, one who operates not from an essential inner realisation of a fundamental truth, but as a creature bent on the inclusion of every kind of difference. She has no cause but to defend her right to live and those she loves to live, but this never translates into a fetished nationalism. She is not moral, she is wise, and she wants no suffering to come to anyone, for no reason other than the obvious: witnessing the pain in others is horrible. In this, she is more advanced than most humans alive today. Disney has not just debunked the mythology of the evil Queen, as they did in Frozen. Here they have rewritten her history – they have included the flaws that make her perfect, and they have built a human we barely recognise, nor know what to do with. Maleficent has a history, but in a positively Nietzsche meets Foucault meets Butler transformation, they have given us a human that is genuinely the evolution of ourselves for no other reason than we choose to evolve. Maleficent’s incredible victory flight at the end of the film (spoiler) is the flight of victor who has one the battle against themselves, it is the perfect realisation of transformation and evolution by our own intended design.
Sleeping Beauty is a very old tale, originally written in 1697 by Charles Perrault, then revived around 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, two scholars of local folklore. Maleficent the character was an addition to the original story, made in the 1959 Disney version. To suggest, as some critics have, that this story didn’t need to be re written is baffling, because the biggest theme of the film (spoiler alert) the removal of Maleficent’s wings, is the very reason the story had to be retold. Maleficent then reacts with anger and aggression upon another female she sees as privileged, and if you think this is unrealistic, you should speak to the few women who have survived dowry murder attempts at the hand of their mother-in-law, as I have, to see what women will do to each other when their own power has been stripped away. To right the social wrongs that have festered in the wake of all the tellings of the Sleeping Beauty myth (for it is true to say this story has now reached that stage), Robert Stromberg and Linda Woolverton have reached back in time to the ancient Greeks, and the mythology between the 8th century BC to around 600 AD that transformed all the cultures touched by the Sleeping Beauty story. In an age when we are drowning in an ocean of mediocre comic films, inspired by the reading material of privileged white pre-teen American males from the 1940’s forward, constantly touted as relevant when they are poorly concieved sausage fests, it is invigorating to evoke imagery that is hundreds, and thousands of years old that touches all Western culture. As much as I am so grateful to Linda Woolverton and Robert Stromberg and Disney for having the courage to make this beautiful, remarkable film, I’m not sure that I trust them to have come up with such nuances, and therefore I make the assertion that this film has Angelina Jolie written all over it, and she had to have a hand in all the script re-writes and the use of metaphor in the film. There is a potent female mind behind Maleficent, and it is a glorious thing to behold.
Maleficent is a game changer for me. Disney, a company I felt contributed very little except to steal and bastardize other people’s work, has gained a new respect. Linda Woolverton has inspired my interest and I have rarely seen a director start out as strong as Robert Strombeg has here. Angelina Jolie has already contributed enormously to a contemporary vision of women portrayed in film, but she will be able to get away with a great deal in my books after this.
But most of all, I have lost faith in contemporary film criticism, to the point where I will simply stop reading it. Like theatre critics given far too much power to make or break a show on its opening week, film critics are a far larger contributor to inequities in female representation in film than I realised. In almost every case, they are retrograde hacks, slaves to a system that has stripped them of clarity of thought and (apparently) the ability to see what is plain and clear in front of them. There have been many complaints of late about inept criticism in books also, and don’t get me started on the boring, receding quality of music critique . When did we arrive at the place where writers are as conservative as politicians and reading has become an act of assimilation by a the blandest aspects of society? When did writing become a tool of the timid and a closed gate against exciting, new ideas? Were writers tamed along with the internet, or has this been happening for decades, but we were too slow to see it? How did criticism become such a quagmire of mediocrity?
I don’t know the answers to the above, but I do know a very small amount of people will continue to make films as magnificent as Maleficent, and for the very few of us with our eyes open, we will be able to see them for what they genuinely are.