Freedom moves in mysterious ways, often – when no other avenue is available – through film and film-making. By some loophole in the small print of the country’s gender agenda, Saudi Arabia’s women are allowed to make movies. They are not allowed to drive cars. Nor to walk the streets unsmothered in black. Nor, according to director Haifaa al-Mansour, to teach the Koran while having their periods ... In sex-equality matters, Saudi Arabia hasn’t advanced much beyond the Stone Age (of which the country’s execution squads have long had their own version). So al-Mansour’s Wadjda – the story of a girl who wants to own and ride a bike, a practice frowned on by her society – should be cheered to the echo and beyond.
It may not be great cinema, this plain translucent story, but it point-scores delicately and without malice. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the 10-year-old whose still-beautiful mother (Reem Abdullah) is being dumped by a remarrying husband, has tomboy inclinations. They peep out below her upper-body black: the jeans and sneakers that for most nations are normal kids’ mufti. The young, though, get a brief lease of life and freedom even in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda plays with a bike-owning neighbour boy; she laughs out loud (though women’s voices are forbidden to be heard by men in streets); and she is impatient with her chanting lessons, long and arduous, in preparation for a school Koran contest.
Haifa al-Mansour has won the title of Saudi Arabia’s “first woman film-maker”. In a country where she risks also being the last – if male chauvinism in the land of Mecca gets its way – her bravery is as valuable as her artistry. Of the second there are telling examples: the tenderly sketched relationship, rueful and mutually compassionate, between mother and daughter; a wonderful trompe l’oeil shot of a riderless bicycle appearing to glide along the top of a wall. The bike of the girl’s dreams is actually being transported atop an unseen van. (How many hours of great cinema, from Bicycle Thieves to Jules et Jim, have been devoted to the velocipede? That simple yet iconic vehicle whose two wheels mimic the reel-housings of the camera and the projector ...)
The film’s eventual happy ending is paid for with some late-scenes heartache. Wishes get granted, in countries like this, in roundabout ways. You must first circumnavigate the giant boulder Patriarchy, obdurate and unbudging in the middle of everyone’s lives. This is a bold, heartening movie. Let’s hope for more from its creator and indeed from her country.
Men are despots in Megan Griffith’s Eden too, another “Allons enfants” to womanhood by a woman. Immigrant girls are captured in the American southwest and herded into a “chicken farm” in mid-desert. For half an hour, with brutish hunks abusing teens in torn clothes, we think: “Sexploitation!” Then stately, plump Beau Bridges appears, a corrupt federal marshal resembling a gone-to-girth Timothy Spall, and the story starts.
There is shading – some – even under the merciless sun of sporadic melodrama. Main distressed damsel is Hyun-Jae (Jamie Chung), a Korean-American girl trying to beat the bullies by appearing to join them. The film gets nasty again at the end. In a human farmyard you expect farmyard, or even abattoir, deaths. To its honour, Eden has already crawled out from the sexploitation mire on to storytelling terra firma.
The World’s End is a midsummer British comedy. That is practically a factory label declaring faulty goods. Imagine Shaun of the Dead recycled as a pub crawl comedy by star-screenwriter Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright, with the zombies replaced by ... Oh no, sorry, Pegg and Wright “would really appreciate if you [meaning us critics] didn’t reveal some of the surprises”. That’s fine with me. I won’t reveal the full, surprising extent to which the film is witless, inspirationless and flogs its few recurring jokes till they whimper.
Of the week’s two thrillers, Sweden’s Easy Money is the bolder and better: a Scandinavian-Italian-Serbian-Chilean robbery romp in which a polyglot gang goes for a bank bust, only to learn – well, all the usual things (thieves fall out, cops crash the climactic action), but in a fizzy, multicultural way.
In The Frozen Ground, Nicolas Cage chases a truth-based serial killer (John Cusack) across icy Alaska. The whole film, really, comes from a freezer. Thaw first; then reheat the bugaboo murders, the twitchy killer, the trail of script clues that would lead a moose to the truth in moments but must take 105 minutes to occupy a movie-picked police force.