The Perfect Candidate opens with a niqab-wearing, Saudi woman at the wheel of a car. It is then revealed that she is a doctor. For a moment, this almost feels like a vision of progress for the ultra-conservative state. But then, as Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) attempts to treat a seriously injured car accident victim, she is yelled at by the patient, who declares: “I told you not to take me to a hospital with woman doctors”. Progress, it seems, is not a straight line.
Maryam soon discovers this when she attempts to travel for a medical conference and is told her travel permit has expired. A male guardian – husband or father – needs to be involved in any renewal and Maryam’s father (Khalid Abdulraheem) is out playing his oud on a sparsely-attended concert tour. During one of her contrived attempts to jump through bureaucratic hoops, she fills out a form to put herself forward for municipal elections and, after the dust settles, she decides to go through with it and genuinely campaign for office.
Helmed by Wadjda director Haifaa al-Mansour – returning to her homeland after a pair of English language features – the film throws an array of predictable stumbling blocks in front of Maryam as she attempts to build her campaign. She’s quickly pigeon-holed as a gimmick candidate (“Is this a woman’s rights thing?” a co-worker asks) and struggles with the fact women feel the need to ask their husbands’ permission to vote, as well as the fact she cannot address many male voters directly.
But Maryam doesn’t let any of that stop her, conveyed by Al Zahrani’s fiery and powerful performance. She’s a stoic presence, used to the micro and macro aggressions of the society in which she lives but fully prepared to step up and say something when she believes she is being held back. Al-Mansour’s choices enhance this, with Maryam covering less of her face in each campaign video as she gains the courage to express herself in defiance against the strictures of social demands.
Freedom runs through the narrative, whether it’s in the political story or the consistent references to music as their family’s expression of their liberty. Maryam’s father has his band and her late mother was a singer, something which feeds into the beautifully sketched relationship between Maryam and her sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali), who share a sing-along to one of their mother’s favourite songs. Their tender sibling bond is built upon finding ways to express their personality and their freedom, regardless of the consequences.
This isn’t a movie that features too many surprises and its storytelling is largely a pretty conventional empowerment story, but its detail lies within its context. Far from as simple as it first appears, The Perfect Candidate is a complex and engrossing tale of a woman’s struggle to be heard. It occasionally pushes through into something a little too overtly didactic – there’s a late in the day scene of redemption that lands with a clunk – but there’s no denying the power of the performances and the subject matter.
Dir: Haifaa al-Mansour
Scr: Haifaa al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Prd: Haifaa al-Mansour, Gerhard Meixner, Brad Niemann, Roman Paul
DOP: Patrick Orth
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Country: Saudi Arabia
Run time: 104 mins
The Perfect Candidate is released on 27th March via Curzon Home Cinema and BFI Player.