Editor Chloe Woods reviews John Madden’s political thriller, now finally released in the UK.
“Were you ever normal?” Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain)’s employer asks her after an act of particular duplicity. “Or were the twisted thought processes wired in the womb?”
Miss Sloane is a belter of a film. Over two hours long and stuffed to the gills with fast-paced plot twists and sharp dialogue, it is not a movie to watch unless you can offer it your full concentration: this it both demands and deserves. At the centre of it we find Elizabeth – the titular “Miss” Sloane – who is one of the most feared lobbyists on Capitol Hill.
The plot is complex but can be distilled as follows. When the pro-gun lobby attempts to hire Madeleine Elizabeth “Liz” Sloane to fight a gun-control bill, she packs up and goes to fight for the opposition’s apparently unwinnable position. Her opponents ultimately try to destroy her reputation with accusations of ethical violations, landing Elizabeth in a high-level hearing, which is where we meet her at the beginning of the film. For most of its runtime, Miss Sloane interplays the hearing and the sequence of earlier events. It eventually becomes apparent that there is more at stake than the fictional Heaton-Harris bill, left to be forgotten as other political games take centre stage.
Scorning her protégée’s penchant for academia and downing prescription pills in the bathroom, our initial impression of Elizabeth is of the classic ice queen, if one hampered by a claimed sense of ethics. This is, to a limited but important extent, a façade: Elizabeth is an expert at playing on what people expect to see. Because Elizabeth Sloane is the smartest person in every room she walks into, she will let people (usually men) know she thinks this, and she will let them believe it’s arrogance – until they understand too late that it’s true. For her, the Heaton-Harris case is both bigger and smaller than the question of the second amendment. She wants to win, marking victory in ways most of the people around her cannot grasp. As best I can tell – for this is a complex film – what she wants to win, in the end, is her own faith in her own integrity and decision-making power over her own life.
Described as “twisted” and “cold”, Elizabeth Sloane’s integrity is not of a sort most would recognise. She is not instinctively good with people; it does bother her when she hurts them but, to her, there is no point at which the means cease to justify the ends. I’ve reviewed two films recently starring sociopathic women – Elle and Lady Macbeth – and it was a relief to see Elizabeth Sloane was the polar opposite: not bereft of empathy, but capable of extending it beyond the immediate confines of her own life in ways that mean she struggles to see the trees for the forest. She can connect with people when she chooses – that’s part of her success as a lobbyist – but ultimately she is a woman on a mission. The question of gun control is illustrative of this. Early in the film we see her grow tired of being asked whether she has a personal experience with gun violence, as if – she retorts – that is the only reason she would have an opinion. Elizabeth lives in a world of bigger pictures, of “foresight”, and this is both a blessing and a curse.
The world punishes people who think like that, and it doubly punishes women. Can you imagine a Mr Sloane here? Elizabeth is not defined by her gender – she is singular and remarkable regardless of gender – but it is hard to see a man in the same position; because other people do define her by gender, and men are not challenged in that way. Men are not forged in the gauntlet of being constantly seen as weak, less capable, monolithic in thought and deed. For a woman to reach Elizabeth’s position she must be twice as good, and she will still be reduced to ‘a woman’ by men who believe she can be bought and sold. This is highlighted by the boorish gun advocate she encounters in the opening minutes of the film, and by her boss’s chastisement after she laughs him out of the room. Elizabeth comments, “I’m not interested in gender” to the leader of a feminist group, who retorts, “All you need is a dick”; but while she may be one of those who’d rather do away with the whole nonsense, she nonetheless clearly understands it, and turns it to her advantage as best she can. In high heels and red lipstick, she is unashamed of her femininity or her sexuality – which, in the absence of human connections, she satisfies via the hiring of male prostitutes. The film itself is also acutely aware of gender (see: boorish gun advocate), and it’s notable that, in a film written and directed by two men (Jonathan Perera and John Madden), and starring the gorgeous Chastain, the only real eye candy is provided by Jake Lacy’s “Forde”.
Though Elizabeth is central, Miss Sloane is populated by a cast of lightly fleshed-out but enjoyable characters. Of these her most critical relationship is with Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the idealist gun-control campaigner whose history Elizabeth lays bare for public consumption for the sake of winning support, with backfiring and potentially deadly consequences. Her former assistant Jane (Alison Pill), though more of a background character, provides an exploration of the tensions and relationships between women in a testosterone-heavy world. Mark Strong’s Rodolfo Schmidt, Elizabeth’s employer through the bulk of the film, comes closest to grasping her machinations and acts as a grounded, clear-moral-compass-having foil to Elizabeth’s larger games.
There’s relatively little to be said from a film-making perspective. Miss Sloane adheres to the language of its genre in music, wardrobe and setting: driven by its plot and analytic rather than symbolic themes, it plays very much by the rules, if fluently so. The film is shot beautifully, of course. From the chrome and glass of America’s elite to a bustling, grimy Chinese restaurant, it glides eloquently from scene to scene, with the exception of one frantic, blurred moment when the power plays threaten to tip over into unpredictable lethal violence. We open with a close-up of Elizabeth and we close with a more distant shot; but we understand her far better than we did from her words at the beginning, though they are all perfectly true, and we leave her deciding where to go next.
Miss Sloane is out now in UK cinemas. See the trailer below: