A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND – Review by Sarah Ward

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When any film includes bloodshed and a shower in close proximity, it instantly conjures up thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. When a movie, particularly one set in the United Kingdom, ponders societal inequity and its impact on ordinary, everyday people just trying to get by, the great English social-realist filmmaker Ken Loach immediately springs to mind. Combine the two, as well as the gritty underworld goings-on of many a British-based crime flick and the neon-hued neo-noir vibe brandished by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, and A Good Woman Is Hard to Find is the end result. This home invasion-turned-revenge thriller boasts plenty of style, knows exactly the mood it’s aiming for and has something worthy to say — and that’s an engaging combination.

Also captivating: star Sarah Bolger, who plays a widowed single mother also called Sarah. Hers is the type of adaptable performance that could slide seamlessly into an ominous crime-fuelled mystery, a kitchen sink drama, or a glossy, violence-filled onslaught and always feel at home. As the narrative thrusts Bolger’s character into these various guises, the Once Upon a Time, Counterpart and Mayans M.C. actor remains authentic at every turn, too — whether Sarah is attempting to cope when a drug dealer storms into her home, weathering the scorn and judgement of everyone from the local supermarket security guard to child services, or ultimately forced to push back. Indeed, without Bolger’s compelling portrayal, the third feature from Shooting Shona and Road Games’ Abner Pastoll might’ve sported its genre-hybrid seams too prominently, while the script by Ronan Blaney (Oscar-nominated short Boogaloo and Graham) could’ve felt guilty of taking a few too many sizeable leaps.

Endeavouring to grapple with the aftermath of her husband’s murder — in front of her young son Ben (Rudy Doherty), who has refused to speak ever since — Sarah’s life is one grim, unhappy routine. Still living on the Northern Irish estate where her spouse was killed, she’s looked down upon by everyone around her, including her middle-class mother (Jane Brennan) who refuses to forgive her for marrying someone she disapproved of. When Sarah scrounges together what money she can to buy groceries, it’s never enough. When she visits the police station for an update on her husband’s case, she’s met with rudeness and told to just let sleeping dogs lie. And when she returns home with Ben and her daughter Lucy (Macie McCauley) one day, opportunistic crim Tito (Andrew Simpson) thinks nothing of barging his way into her flat. He gives just as little consideration to his decision to use Sarah’s apartment as a base to hide from local drug kingpin Leo Miller (Andrew Hogg), and as a launchpad for slinging his stolen illicit substances around neighbourhood.

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find could’ve simply stitched together easy cliches and fashioned them into a straightforward story. It could’ve just wallowed in the well-documented misery of estate-housing living, leaned onto the immense imbalance between Sarah and Tito — who demands she treat him, a stranger, as she would her husband — and played up Leo’s cookie-cutter status as grammar-correcting Brit crime boss. Thankfully, although the film definitely indulges when it comes to the latter, it always pulsates with a vital perspective. In exploring exactly what Sarah endures day in, day out, Pastoll paints an intricate picture of society’s treatment of women it deems unworthy, expendable and deserving of their fates. Accordingly, when Tito and later Leo enter the picture, their heavy-handed incursion into Sarah’s life resonates not because it’s unusual or heightened, but because its oh-so-typical of a world that already pays her such little care.

When the feature switches to vengeance mode, tasking its heroine with making tough decisions and committing rough acts for a good reason, it consequently does so while making a statement: if society won’t look out for Sarah, she’ll do it herself. Although that’s an obvious and far-from-uncommon message, as seen in almost every tale about a stereotypical ‘strong female lead’ fighting back, it’s grounded in such realistic minutiae here that A Good Woman Is Hard to Find never feels as if it’s merely colouring by numbers. That’s not to overlook the movie’s less convincing, often too-neat inclusions, such as its repeated clunky banter about metaphors, its boilerplate graphic matches and its narrative conveniences. Or, its overt setups for predictable later payoffs, including one involving Chekhov’s vibrator. But there’s genuine, thoughtful power to A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, its protagonist and her downtrodden ordeal that never subsides, as well as entertaining and well-executed genre thrills.

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Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic and writer. She is the Australian-based critic for Screen International, and writes for ArtsHub, Concrete Playground, Goethe-Institut Australien, SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. She has also contributed to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series.