The Perfect Candidate (3 stars)

The Perfect Candidate

Trailblazing Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour is behind this crowd-pleasing drama

Much attention will be on The Perfect Candidate's opening scene, depicting lead character Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) driving a car. It's a seemingly natural progression from writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour's 2012 debut Wadjda, where the title character's mother struggles to pay for a driver to and from work, and the final scene depicts Wadjda herself riding away on the bicycle she's worked hard for. The space between the films omits the battle fought by Saudi women activists – many of whom have been imprisoned – for the right to drive.

Instead, Al-Mansour opts for a softly-softly approach to highlighting societal change. A young doctor, the apolitical Maryam, ends up running for local office, not to stand specifically for women's rights, but in the hope of improving the infrastructure around her clinic. She faces many daily barriers and outdated attitudes to her campaign, though her father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) – a musician on tour – is a progressive, empowering his three daughters to fight for what they want.

Al Zahrani makes for a magnetic lead as Maryam grows in confidence, switching from demure to feisty at exactly the right moments, but never becoming a sassy cliche. The observed domesticity of the family scenes is a highlight, as Maryam and her sisters – wedding videographer Selma (Dae Al Hilali) and teenager Sara (Nora Al Awadh) – bicker and tease one another. Elsewhere, an abaya fashion show fundraiser in a colourful room full of women stands out – the film is unabashed in its celebration of sisterhood.

More of a crowd-pleaser than a probing insight into Saudi politics, The Perfect Candidate may feature a number of overfamiliar narrative beats, but its warmth and humour paper over the cracks.

Available on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and Great Modern Things from Fri 27 Mar.

The Perfect Candidate

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • Saudi Arabia, Germany
  • 1h 41min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
  • Cast: Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Mila Al Zahrani

Maryam (Al Zahrani) is a young doctor in Saudi Arabia who runs for office in the hope of improving the infrastructure around her clinic. Warm, crowd-pleasing drama about sisterhood and societal change: Maryam’s father (Abdulraheem) encourages his daughters and Al Zahrani is a magnetic lead.