Nomadland

Here we are, cinemas in the UK are open again. Just as well as I’ve only been able to see thirty seven new movies so far this year and it’s May already.

Okay, so we may not have had a shortage of films but for some of us it isn’t all about what’s on the screen and am thrilled to have returned to my regular place of worship. For the record, it felt safe. The Everyman chain still has all of the protocols in place it had last Summer with hand gel, masks, staggered screenings and spacing and even though I was in a sold out screen it didn’t feel even marginally crowded. I’m beginning to believe I might actually get to see that fabled Bond movie at some point after all.

At this stage there aren’t many brand new releases but rather than running film favourites from the last forty years or so, as they did previously when they were waiting to show Tenet in August and then Wonder Woman 1984 in December, they are showing the bigger of those many movies that have been streaming since Christmas. (I did actually get to see Babyteeth, Bill & Ted, The New Mutants, Rocks, On the Rocks, Saint Maud and The Prom in cinemas in this period as well.)

Because I pay for more of the subscriptions than I should, I have seen other options Judas & the Black Messiah, Sound of Metal, Raya & the Last Dragon and Minari already but despite having Disney+ I’ve been saving this one for the big screen.

I have to say I am glad I did. It was wonderful to see the grand vistas of Nomadland stretched out in front of me and also I am so pleased to have watched this without the inevitable interruptions you get at home. This movie is a sublime experience and should be viewed in such circumstances that you can disappear into it.

What story there is follows recently widowed Fern who has not only lost her husband but following the 2007-2009 recession, has lost her whole town. (A concept that is alien to us in Britain but with big factory towns in the expanse of the US this is something that can apparently happen.) Finding herself with very little to hold her down, she kits out a small van with all that she needs and hits the road, taking seasonal work and travelling around the West and Midwest of America. If you wanted to trace Fern’s tracks and see the incredible landscapes that the film captures for yourself then you’d need to take your Ford Transit around Nevada, South Dakota, California, Arizona and Nebraska.

Nomadland is ostensibly a beautifully subtle character portrait but while it sticks closely with its protagonist it does have a wider focus, incorporating not only a study of Fern’s acquaintances and regular reacquaintances but also pondering human existence in general. I want to describe this film as poetry but that doesn’t quite capture it, it is lyrical and contemplative but in a way that I can’t quite quantify. It is magnificently cinematic without being filmic, it is heartbreaking without being sad and it is real without being naturalistic. Whatever it is, Nomadland is its own thing and it is wonderful. The movie doesn’t shout, even though it has cause to, rather it sort of sings. It isn’t a big rousing chorus though so much as a sweet, delightful, little, unassuming but profound hymn to life and death.

I have seen some criticism that the movie romanticises what it is to be one of these contemporary nomads, or to give them their correct title – vandwellers. Certainly it never explicitly states that any of these people are living this sparse lifestyle because they have to, positing instead that this is always a choice. There are a number of members of this roaming community in the film though so they are effectively involved in telling their own story. The movie is adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non fiction book and three of the people she wrote about are playing partially fictionalised versions of themselves here. Besides, wanting this to be a documentary misses the point. They could have easily made that film but they have done something else and audiences are the winners as a result.

Nomadland has been rightly celebrated. My biggest disappointment on Oscar night was that Chadwick Boseman didn’t get an award but having seen just a clip of The Father (it comes out on 11th June) it is hard to argue that Anthony Hopkins didn’t deserve his win. Similarly I had wanted Promising Young Woman to take the main prize (shame that’s not in cinemas, I’d see that again like a shot) but can now see that Nomadland should indeed have got Best Picture. I still prefer Emerald Fennell’s feminist asseveration but this is the rightful winner. It’s odd to think this after Nomadland swept all of the big gongs at all of this year’s ceremonies but it is still an irregular project to be voted number one. It is great that the Academy is rewarding genre defying works like this, Parasite, Moonlight and The Shape of Water and the idea of the traditional Oscar film has now fallen right away. Nomadland especially, is not a traditional film in any sense.
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The Ripley Factor:

Of course Chloe Zhao was also the second ever lady to win the Academy Award for Best Director and like Promising Young Woman, Nomadland is a bold and interesting film created by a woman and built around a female lead. Not only that but a 60 plus female lead too and almost everyone in this film is of a similar age or older. Frances McDormand, now a three time Oscar winner, has never been better and Fern is a brave, confident, flawed and independent lead. Nomadland is not particularly feminist piece but it is female centric and is undeniably a step forward for gender representation in the medium.

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