The Perfect Candidate – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Writers: Haifaa Al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Stars: Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Mila Al Zahrani
Everything is possible with commitment. The power of education and empathy, leading to empowerment, is an underlying theme through Haifaa al-Mansour’s 2019 film, The Perfect Candidate. Set in present-day Saudi Arabia the film narrates the story of Maryam, the talented doctor in a small under-resourced clinic far from the brighter lights of central Riyadh, where construction sites, builders rubble and half-built projects provide the setting for the everyday norm of the kingdom’s subjects – the daily dusty and sandy routine punctuated by the regular calls to prayer. In spite of her accomplishment she has to contend with the entrenched conservatism of the society where the male nurses are given greater respect and authority than the qualified female doctor. Frustrated by the dilapidated state of the clinic’s access routes and determined to have the issue rectified she finds herself, almost by accident, listed as a candidate in the local Municipal elections.
The film deftly highlights how gender divides can become so entrenched – she has to overcome firmly held views from within her own family, the local TV station, and the electorate itself. Right up to the moment and reflecting changes in Saudi under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmann, Maryam has bought her own car and drives fearlessly across the city (women were only allowed to drive unaccompanied months before the launch), the film is almost a clarion call for Saudi women themselves to encourage and facilitate change in their society.
As in the finest prayer mats and floor rugs there is a web and weft of lesser narratives – the relationships between siblings, dealing with grief, and parental inability to cope with a new generation. The most significant lesser narrative is worthy of a film in its own right – the revival of a folk orchestra playing Classical Arabic Music – their big ‘comeback’ concert is worth the price of admission itself. It adds a complementary flourish to the narrative emphasising that traditional Arabic Culture is richer and more varied than the perception of a wholly repressive society that we consume so uncritically here in the West. A feel-good film, without being mawkish, it allows the viewer to build empathy and be inspired, while allowing a bout of foot tapping to the wonderful music.