Oscar Nominations 2018 – FILM REVIEW: Mudbound (2017)

Dir: Dee Rees

Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Mary J. Blige), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Orginal Song, Best Cinematography.

Score: ★☆☆☆☆

Dark, waterlogged and often grim Mudbound is the story of two different men Jamie McAllan & Ronsel Jackson (one white, one black) returning from World War II to rural Mississippi. Given their different skin colours each man returns to a vastly different situation despite living in exactly the same locale. Carey Mulligan plays Laura McAllan the wife of Henry McCallan who ups sticks and moves out to Mississippi having a bought seemingly gloomy plot of land to call his own. Also on Henry’s land is a poor black family (The Jacksons), father Hap, and his wife Florence (played by Mary J. Blige) alongside their children are tenant’s farming the land and hoping to make enough money to buy their own patch someday. It’s hard going for both families who face their own depressing struggles. Laura’s loveless marriage to Henry is essentially waiting for the return of Henry’s better looking brother Jamie to stir things up for the plot. However Jamie returns riddled with PTSD from his traumatic experiences in the air force, he turns to the bottle to help and also looks for a friend in the other local veteran (who happens to be black) Ronsel Jackson. Ronsel for his part is a sergeant who finds the experience of liberating Europe from the Nazis’s a traumatic but… liberating one. Having enjoyed the less overtly racist climate overseas returning to Jim Crow law ruled southern U.S. is a sharp contrast. Despite his service in the army locals see him as no more than another “negro”, and an uppity one at that. His friendship with Jamie is one that has to be secret in the society of the day (and place), especially needing to be hidden from the hyper prejudiced father of Henry & Jamie.

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A forbidden friendship between two WWII veterans.

The first section of the film is a bit drab, both in story terms but also in filmmaking terms. For some time it’s a little opaque as to what the point of the piece is going to be. As the two men return from war things pull into focus and in the end the film even has the power to shock and surprise, despite the fact it’s actually a well trodden scenario. Some of the cinematography, set dressing and effects are below brilliant. The acting is often capable but mostly uninspiring. The secret heart to heart conversations between the two veterans are especially pedestrian scenes, the scenes of war are also pretty subpar. Carey Mulligan doesn’t offer much as usual, in fact none of the cast are standouts, except Mary J. Blige who does indeed give an understated and classy performance. I am not sure it’s enough to warrant her Oscar nomination but in the context of her relatively short acting career (she does have a nominated song on the soundtrack too) she has made great choices and been well directed. It would be fair to say there is some real promise there. The story is not brilliantly structured and numerous scenes are dull and cliche, the film is often times a bit sparse, and not really in a way that adds to the artistry.

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Mary J. Blige & Carey Mulligan

After the furore at Cannes over the inclusion of film’s from streaming services being included in the festival it seemed unlikely that a Netflix Original production would get any recognition at The Oscars. Documentaries have had the nod before but not scripted films. It’s true that Amazon’s Manchester By The Sea was included last year but it had been given a theatrical release proper and not released on Amazon until much later just as it would have been on traditional home video. Cannes instituted a rule that all future films included for competition need proper cinema releases, but Mudbound is one that was released direct to Netflix. I am not sure this represents any major breakthrough for the recognition of work made for streaming services, it isn’t anywhere near the quality of production to make those kind of major waves but it is a history making film non the less. Personally my belief is that cinema is for darkened rooms with others on big screens with high quality big sound. Anything that isn’t created with that in mind,  isn’t really cinema, it’s elaborate TV. Ultimately Netflix is for the small screen (no matter how big your TV is) and just isn’t comparable unless it has been tested on that battleground of the theatre. Mudbound is able to create the required amount of small misery on the small screen but the reality is it doesn’t hold up as a great piece of cinema and is probably not the most appropriate choice to spearhead Netflix’s campaign to be seen on the same level as true cinema.

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