Monday, 8 February 2010

'Precious' Review: A 'Precious' thing?

'Precious’, or ‘Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire’, to use its full US title, is a big Oscar contender and a new film from Lee Daniels, best known as the producer of ‘Monster’s Ball’. Set in Harlem in 1987, ‘Precious’ tells the story of a sixteen year-old African American girl who suffers horrendous domestic abuse (of both a violent and sexual nature) at the hands of her parents. Claireece Precious Jones, played by Oscar nominated newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, is illiterate, obese and has twice been made pregnant by her father. Her mother, excellently portrayed by a terrifying Mo’Nique (pictured above), has not only allowed her daughter to be repeatedly raped, but also regularly subjects her to the most appalling physical and mental abuse. She force feeds her daughter and then torments her about her weight. She knocks Precious unconscious by throwing frying pans at the back of her head, all the time sitting watching television game shows and misleading well-meaning social workers in order to collect her welfare cheques.

Mo’Nique (a famous comedienne stateside) really makes this role her own and it is no surprise that she is the odds-on favourite to take home the Best Supporting Actress award at the Oscars in March, having already been honoured by Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild – she would certainly be a worthy recipient. Not only is she a truly frightening presence, but she also manages to round her character out, avoiding making her a two dimensional villain. Mo’Nique imbues her character with enough insecurity and disappointment at how her own life has turned out that when she does irredeemably cruel things they are rooted in her own history of abuse and neglect. In this way the film avoids taking a complicated social problem and attributing one individual with the blame.

Gabourey Sidibe is equally good in what is essentially a thankless role as the young Precious. She is reduced to brooding silence or painful inarticulacy for most of the film – and to vapid smiles during the relief fantasy sequences. Her character is, by necessity, unable to really express herself due to her reluctance to confront the reality of her life. But she convinces and instils Precious with her own aura of violent menace, whilst crucially maintaining an air of vulnerability. Among the supporting performers is a decent turn from Lenny Kravitz (in a minor role as a male nurse) and a really brilliant performance from Mariah Carey (pictured) as the social worker looking over Precious’s case. A lot has been made of Carey doing without make-up and being prepared to be unglamorous, but to focus on that aspect ignores a very solid performance. She absolutely nails her role with an air of authority and keeps the emotional distance required in that sort of profession, without seeming cold. She is stern and authoritative and at the films climax she brushes away a budding tear with quiet dignity in a wonderful moment. Helen Mirren, who was originally cast in the role, could not have done better. In fact in many ways she may have felt less authentic.

The film has some interesting racial politics as Precious mistakenly calls Mariah Carey’s Ms. Weiss “Mrs. White” and later questions her about her ambiguous ethnicity. In an earlier scene, Precious sees herself in a mirror as a thin, white girl. It is also constantly repeated during the films monologues that Precious desires a “light-skinned boyfriend”. This could be seen as supportive of some statements made by US critics that the film paints a negative picture of African American life, with Precious wishing to escape being black as if it would end her problems. But I think the many times we see smiling white people on television taking part in aspirational television shows we are being shown an alien world quite different to the one that Precious experiences in Harlem. If anything this aspect of the film links its social issues to poverty and highlights how, in America, the urban poor are often ghettoised ethnic minorities.

The one exception to the overall excellence in the cast is Paula Patton in the clichéd role of the inspirational teacher. The ludicrously named Ms. Blu Rain delivers the film’s most cumbersome and sentimental lines (“I love you precious...” adding with a whisper “your baby loves you.”) Her role is admittedly overwritten and heavy handed, but Patton fails to bring anything to it, let alone carry it off with the same effortless hard edge as her co-stars. It feels a little as if she has strolled in from a different, more obvious, movie.

Another criticism I could direct at the film is at the contrived level of misery befalling its protagonist: Precious is sexually abused by her father and physically assaulted by her mother; she is illiterate; she is obese; one of her two children has Down’s Syndrome; she lives in poverty and off welfare. As if these difficulties were not hard going enough the final act sees Precious again dealt another horrible blow by fate, which I won’t go into here so as not to spoil the film. It feels a little like it’s actively courting Oscar attention. I would also agree with many critics who have taken issue with the fantasy sequences. Although I understand (and admire) their intended purpose to relieve the viewer of too much distress (such as during a rape scene) and also to give us a glimpse at how Precious copes with her situation, I found the sequences themselves to be poorly shot and cheap looking compared to the rest of the film. They don’t fit stylistically with the rest of the piece, which is a problem.

Despite these flaws, ‘Precious’ is a film worthy of attention, especially for the performances. The films last scene is flawlessly executed and many of the scenes between Precious and her mother are tense and suspenseful. I wouldn’t award it Best Picture, in March, but then neither will the academy. However, it is an interesting film worthy of consideration.

For a preview of Mo'Nique's inevitable Oscar win, watch her excruciating Golden Globe acceptance speech below:

'Precious' is certified 15 by the BBFC and is playing until Thursday 11th of February at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton.

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