WOMAN WALKS AHEAD — Review by Nikki Baughan

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woman walks ahead posterThe exploration of history through the female experience remains a rare thing in filmmaking – and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Western genre. Director Susanna White’s Woman Walks Ahead boldy takes on this overtly masculine cinematic landscape with this sensitive portrayal of real-life Native American rights campaigner Catherine Weldon, who travelled from 1880s New York City to the Dakota plains in order to paint legendary Chief Sitting Bull and subsequently became embroiled in their fight to regain control of their lands. Continue reading…

While the screenplay, by Steven Knight, may sometimes veer towards the melodramatic, and some of the characterization remains somewhat one dimensional, the stunning central performances from Jessica Chastain as Weldon and Michael Greyeyes as Sitting Bull see the film rise above these potential pitfalls. In her direction, too, White manages both to pay homage to the traditional blueprint of the genre – solitary figures silhouetted against expansive skies and the like – and lay bare some of its outdated tropes. Sam Rockwell’s gruff Colonel Groves, for example, is, on the surface, a run-of-the-mill, gruff misogynist but, on closer inspection, wears the traumatic psychological scars of war. Similarly, Sitting Bull may be an impressive sight in his war paint and feathers but, underneath it all, showcases a visceral, human vulnerability that makes his plight, and that of his people, even more devastating.

The film, however, belongs to Chastain, and, as ever, she breathes dignified, defiant life into this truly remarkable woman. Newly widowed, and thrusting herself into the most male-dominated environment imaginable, Weldon is determined to embrace the possibilities of a life without constraints – while also being understandably terrified at the prospect. While westward expansion forges violently ahead around her, she is the real marker of progress; a woman committed to changing her own future, while recognizing – and learning from – the traditions and values of the past. Over a century later, we would do well to follow her example.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Woman Walks Ahead is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for June 22, 2018.

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Nikki Baughan

Nikki Baughan is a London-based freelance film critic and features writer. Formerly editor of both Film Review and movieScope magazines, Nikki is currently contributes to various print and online publications, including Screen International, BFI, The List and Film Divider.