Nomadland

Nomadland ★★★

I love The Rider and I went in really hoping to love this too. I think it succeeds in many ways, capturing both the precariousness and the consolations of a marginal life on the road without miserabilsing the former or romanticising the latter. The film makes it clear that this kind of life is often lonely, scary, undignified and exhausting, while also understanding that its relative autonomy can be rewarding, and that it provides a unique ability to connect with nature, an aspect that is lyrically portrayed by Zhao's trademark golden-hour cinematography.

However, I just could not get past the casting of Frances McDormand in this fictional role alongside so many real people for whom this lifestyle's precarity is an inescapable reality. I think McDormand is as good as any actress could be in this part – she portrays her character, Fern, in a perfectly understated way, showing Fern's quiet self-possession and resourcefulness along with her wry sense of humour and playfulness, and McDormand really looks the part too – and I'm sure the film wouldn't be getting so much mainstream attention if it didn't have a big name attached. But I just kept finding myself thinking that none of this was real for McDormand while it was all too real for everyone else. This is an issue I didn't have at all with The Rider – whose lead actor is performing only a very lightly fictionalised version of himself – and I don't think I would feel the same about a film that was entirely fictional either (Wendy and Lucy springs to mind; I had no difficulty buying Michelle Williams in that role). I can't exactly put my finger on why I felt like this, but I think it has something to do with the huge gulf that exists between McDormand's real life and the lives of the people she's interacting with. Maybe it's just a failure of imagination on my part, but these kinds of thoughts just kept taking me out of the film.

Having said all that, I still found this to be a largely riveting and moving experience, and great to see on a big screen with an audience. We saw this in a reasonably full cinema at Lido – I'm still so excited to be in a cinema again – and there was a collective gasp at the moment a particular box was dropped that I haven't heard the likes of since seeing Happy as Lazarro at MIFF in 2018.

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