THE PLAYLIST – Film Review – Toronto Film Festival, Sep 12 2017
A few times each year, students and teachers take a break from each other by filling class time with a movie. The curriculum of films rarely gets updated, but educators may want to consider “Woman Walks Ahead.” It’s the kind of smoothly rounded, edgeless historical drama that’s built for maximum appeal, with a broad perspective and an easy to digest tone. Well-crafted and ably told, this is a film that’s wholly respectable, that manages to connect with its earnest good intentions and desire to please.
The always reliable Jessica Chastian gives another strong performance as Catherine Weldon, a modern woman by 1880s standards, who is quite happy to be widowed, thank you very much. Long told that her artistic ambitions were an “unsuitable profession,” she openly embraces the opportunity to paint portraits without the restraint of domestic responsibilities and could care less about societal approval. So Catherine heads west from New York City, determined to make Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) her next subject. She naively believes that a letter sent in advance to the commanding officer (Ciarin Hinds) of Fort Yates, North Dakota along with a note for the Lakota holy man will be all she needs to earn an audience with the famed Sioux warrior. But her letters are ignored and destroyed, and Catherine is viewed as just another “New York liberal, stoking the flames” of hostility between the U.S. government and Native Americans.
Nonetheless, the artist is resolute, and finds an ally in a local lawman (Chaske Spencer), who confides a little too readily, that while the Army thinks he’s spying on the Sioux, the opposite is true. He introduces Catherine to Sitting Bull who strikes a deal, and eventually a friendship, with the determined white woman, but trouble is just over the horizon. Catherine may be a fly in the ointment to some, but far more seriously, the proposed Allotment Act, which would further divide and reduce territory for all Native American tribes is being tabled. And in an effort to force their agreement to this unfair piece of legislature, the government halves the rations going to the reservations. Catherine is spurred into activism, and Sitting Bull, who was initially content to farm potatoes, returns fully to his leadership position among the Sioux. What starts as a creative collaboration, turns into a political alliance, as Catherine becomes, to use today’s parlance, woke. But as we know from history, her advocacy and activism can’t stop the inevitable horrors to come.
Screenwriter Steven Knight (“Locke,” “Eastern Promises”) takes a very measured approach in his screenplay. While “Woman Walks Ahead” ultimately and rightfully takes a moral side with the Native populations that were pushed off their land through a combination of direct force and subtler underhanded methods, the film also takes a moment early on to mourn the numerous lives lost by the soldiers who served their country. Overall, Knight plays it safe, preferring not to get bogged down in the specifics of life in Standing Rock, and also side-steps the brutality of the long battle between the army and Sioux, keeping the drama literally bloodless. It’s a script that’s careful not to provoke, paint its villains broadly, and never doubts the commitment of those fighting for the Sioux cause. While the outcome is tragic, the path there is gentle.
Sharing a chemistry that’s genuinely comic and effectively sombre, Chastain and Greyeyes are consummate pros who know their presence and personality combined with a little bit of actorly boost, are just enough to elevate the picture from a dry, cinematic history lesson into a colorful true story tale. Cinematographer Mike Eley (“My Cousin Rachel,” “The Selfish Giant”) keeps “Woman Walks Ahead” big screen frames worthy, with his camera taking in several gorgeous vistas through the film, in a not so subtle illustration of just how much the Sioux and other tribes stand to lose. As for director Susanna White (“Our Kind Of Traitor,” “Parade’s End”) she otherwise doesn’t get too fussy, keeping the visuals clean, and the focus on the performances.
“Woman Walks Ahead” may not generate much passion, but it’s crafted with enough care that it’s difficult to dismiss. It succeeds in its goal of paying respect to Sitting Bull and plight of his people, while also shining a light on a minor, but no less interesting segment of his life. Catherine’s arrival at Standing Rock didn’t change history, but by bearing witness, she became one more voice among those calling for change. And sometimes, that’s enough. [B]