The first five minutes of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate contain a fizzing anger that charges the action in a way the film rarely reclaims. As a screaming man is wheeled into hospital over poorly paved roads in a small Saudi Arabian town, female doctor Maryam prepares herself to potentially save the man’s life. It is an arresting start that, when the man refuses to be treated by Maryam despite her being the only doctor on duty, quickly becomes a vital, enraging one. The simple, ridiculous stubbornness of prejudice is laid bare in this one excellent scene, and it fires up the emotions for what is to come.
Sadly what is to come does not quite capitalise on these emotions. As the film progresses the story is told with a softer edge, favouring the warmth of progress rather than grinding its heel into injustice. That is not to say that The Perfect Candidate does not acknowledge this injustice; in fact it is a brave, direct film almost entirely about the in-built sexism of Saudi society. Yet the filmmaking rarely makes us feel this injustice and share in the rage, instead offering us a gentler dramatic approach to a woman’s fight for her say. This is in many ways no bad thing; what Al-Mansour’s work lacks in grit and fire it replaces with humour and memorable characters to create a film that is an enjoyable and thought-provoking watch if not an essential one.
Our hero is the aforementioned Maryam, a smart young doctor living with her musician father and two sisters: photographer Selma and teenage Sara. Their mother has died prior to the film and her presence is felt throughout the story, a female model to both emulate and avoid. Continually dismayed by the local government’s inaction on the crumbling road leading to the hospital, and the dismissal of her concerns by a series of men, Maryam decides to stand in the upcoming city elections. Both bemusing and angering the residents by becoming their first female candidate, Maryam must fight to be taken seriously and get the road repaved. With their father away on tour, the sisters band together, turning their home into a makeshift campaign headquarters.
Once the electioneering gets underway, the film gathers pace and enters its most enjoyable phase. There is a sense of fun and ’sticking it to the man’ about the action, which is aided by the charming camaraderie between the sisters. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its endearing and daring depiction of three central female characters acting and living independently of a man for most of the film, each with their own differences of opinion and varied perspectives on the election; their banter and palpable love for each other is a joy to watch. Al-Mansour neatly shows us several supportive male characters too, but without ever taking agency and credit away from the women.
The humorous interplay between the sisters is indicative of the lightness Al-Mansour finds within the film. Mila Al Zahrani and Dae Al Hilali do good work as the older sisters in these exchanges, but it is Nora Al Awadh who catches the eye as young Sara. Her looks of disdain as her big sister’s run for office plunge her further and further into teenage embarrassment provide a wry smile whilst also continually reminding us of the effect the fight for women’s rights can have on every part of the family. Their father’s tour round the country has its own struggles and proves to be a largely expendable subplot, but is buoyed by the amiable Shafi Alharthy as the musician’s friend and confidant.
Through the campaign journey Maryam herself remains something of an enigma. She is principled and forthright yet often quiet and reserved socially compared to the more charismatic Selma. There is something in Maryam that would have made a deep, compelling protagonist, and the film perhaps misses a trick in not exploring the effect the election has on her beyond surface level. There is the sense that the campaign was not just of narrative importance but a catalyst for a change in Maryam’s own character, yet like much of the film this is told in a way that commands attention, but does not dig deep into the heart.
Perhaps where Al-Mansour fails to make a great film from her strong premise is in trying to tell several stories at once. There are hints of a great political drama here, but we see nothing of Maryam’s opponent and hear little of her plans beyond fixing the road; there are only shades of character study, and the affecting family drama is often sidelined for the election narrative. The film therefore spreads itself too thin to do any of these things exceptionally. Yet it does do all of them well, and moves the audience enough for us to care about each one. Despite its flaws The Perfect Candidate is a strong film, and one that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It has a charm and lightness that belies its serious subject matter, making affecting if not wholly arresting viewing.