The Homesman (15)****

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A frontier woman’s work is never done in Tommy Lee Jones’ bleak and compelling feminist western.

Not only does a mid-19th century miss have to cook and clean, she is also expected to pretty herself to attract a surly suitor in a society where men and pistols hold sway.

Undated Film Still Handout from The Homesman. Pictured: Tommy Lee Jones. See PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout/Entertainment One/Dawn Jones. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. PPP-141117-153726001

Undated Film Still Handout from The Homesman. Pictured: Tommy Lee Jones. See PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout/Entertainment One/Dawn Jones. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FILM Film Reviews. PPP-141117-153726001

In the case of The Homesman’s unconventional, spunky heroine, she also has to till the land, manage finances and compensate for a town full of cowardly, incompetent husbands, who put their own needs ahead of the women by their side.

Based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, Jones’ film trots through the parched prairies and rolling hills of the 1850s Midwest in the company of two unlikely saviours.

One is a middle-aged spinster, whose grit, resolve and straight-talking principles mark her as a rebel of her sex; the other is a grizzled claim jumper of ambiguous intent, who narrowly avoids swinging by his neck.

In a pleasing subversion of gender and genre stereotypes, it’s women who drive the narrative, who act rather than react, and ultimately leave an indelible mark on our heart.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) owns a ranch and a sizeable plot of land on the outskirts of a close-knit Nebraska community. Suitors repeatedly reject her because they consider her ugly, but Cuddy continues to plough her own furrow.

Three local women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) show signs of insanity and Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) proposes that one of the husbands should take the wives to a mission in Iowa run by Altha Carter (Meryl Streep). When the gutless spouses fail to get behind the plan, Cuddy volunteers to drive the wagon instead.

‘You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts,’ Reverend Dowd compliments her.

En route, Cuddy rescues a claim jumper called George Briggs (Jones) from hanging, on condition that he helps escort the three women to the Missouri River.

The unlikely travelling companions head east, encountering a shady hotel proprietor (James Spader), a thieving cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) and a young woman (Hailee Steinfeld), as yet unmarked by the lawlessness of the era.

The Homesman repeatedly takes risks with tone, pacing and plotting, some of which don’t pay off, but Jones’ gambles lasso our attention.

Swank is breathtaking in a textured role that should be rewarded with an Oscar nomination next year, and she is strongly supported by the writer-director.

Jones doesn’t shy away from the horrors faced by women, catalysed by nightmarish scenes of rape and infanticide.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who galloped to Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee, captures the stark, untamed beauty of the godforsaken land in stunning images that linger in the memory.

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