After the misstep of her English-language debut Mary Shelley, Haifaa Al Mansour has returned to her native Saudi - where she shot her breakthrough film Wadjda under cover back in 2012 - to take advantage of some new freedoms. (Presumably it becomes harder to oppress a woman after she's announced herself so conspicuously to the watching world.) The Perfect Candidate is the kind of illuminating, site-specific parable for which this filmmaker has displayed an instinctive knack, but it's been staged on a bigger scale than Wadjda, and in a visibly more relaxed environment. The new film takes Al Mansour out into airports, businesses and eventually on the campaign trail - there's never any sign she had to hide in a van while filming, as she did at the start of the last decade - although we're constantly aware that the director is enjoying an access and liberty that her protagonist Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a doctor who comes to run for municipal council, hasn't. Setting out to attend a medical conference in Dubai, Maryam is halted at the check-in desk after it becomes clear the permit this grown woman's father has had to sign to allow her to travel has expired; the fact she's not allowed to address men directly poses a major problem when she's out on the stump. That the film is about this intersection of access and power is underlined by the fact Maryam is only standing for office to fix an all but impassable stretch of road outside her clinic - a trivial concern in the grand scheme of things, but which in the medical context may be considered a matter of life and death.
That plot point speaks to The Perfect Candidate's appreciable expansiveness: how it seizes upon small, everyday snafus, and uses them to paint a biggish picture of Saudi life. Maryam's public-service mindset means she's constantly being dragged off to help somewhere else: with patients who express vocal resistance to the idea of being treated by a lady doctor, and then, on a rare day off, assisting with the sound and vision at a wedding that can't help but accentuate her own established status as an unmarried, career-driven woman. Al Mansour draws an instructive contrast with the doctor's widowed father (Khalid Abdulraheem), freely able to tour the country with his musician pals; shown genially plucking his oud, he's an embodiment of that public-facing mobility and leisure Saudi has traditionally denied its daughters. (Much is made of the pitch-black burqa Maryam is forced to scurry about in, a full-body prison distinct from dad's airy white attire; Al Zahrani has to do a lot more acting with attentive, accusatory eyes than Western actresses.) Yet it's the heroine's haphazard progress through the Saudi electoral system that coaxes out what are presumably the most typical attitudes: a sister warns Maryam that she's subjecting herself to the uncommon scrutiny their late mother, a wedding singer, found too much; dad reassures his mates that his forthright girl "is not like this at home"; women meekly tell the candidate they'll ask their husbands who to vote for. Medicine seemed not much of a place for Saudi women; politics would appear even less welcoming.
Oddly, this script (which the director co-wrote with Brad Niemann) gives only a tangential sense of what Maryam stands for: policy discussion is secondary to who she is, and what sex she is. I wondered whether Al Mansour wasn't in part dramatising her own experiences as a woman elevated overnight to a position of prominence. It almost didn't matter what Wadjda (not in itself a fiercely revolutionary text, rather as modest a proposal as paving 100 metres of bad road) was about; Al Mansour - as the first female director to emerge from the Middle East - was always going to be the focus of attention, obliged to stand up and address the crowds (Maryam's "I wanted to start a dialogue on an important issue" is a line straight from a festival press conference) and face the waves of pushback, online and IRL. She's cast well, whatever the case. Al Zahrani is about as feminine an actress as you could put in the role - if she were entering anything as old-fashioned as a beauty contest, she'd walk it - but she maintains a quiet tenacity that reminded me of Catherine Zeta Jones in her better moments: her Maryam knows all too well the obstacles separating her from her goal, and why she can't give up on even the marginal gains she makes. They are marginal, and you may be disappointed if you come to The Perfect Candidate expecting the high-stakes political cut-and-thrust of, say, last year's excellent Spanish thriller The Candidate: there's a kind of posturing Al Mansour isn't interested in. Instead, she calmly and decisively opens a window on her homeland, and in so doing expands our understanding of what both Saudi and perhaps even the world is like right now for a woman: with so much moving in the right direction, and so much yet to be fixed.
The Perfect Candidate is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.