Nomadland won multiple Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, and if there’d been an award for Best Film In Which The Woman In Her Sixties Isn’t The Least Developed Character In The Screenplay, Hallelujah, About Time, it would have scooped that too. Not much competition, regrettably, but you have to admire the film just for that, plus there is much to admire generally.
It is based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by the journalist Jessica Bruder, who spent months living with older Americans who, out of economic necessity, eke out a living while travelling from place to place for seasonal employment.
It’s been fictionalised here, mostly, and stars Frances McDormand who is somehow more beautiful than any beautiful actress, if that makes sense. I just love her face, and everything she does with it. She plays Fern and we know from the off that Fern is in the throes of grief simply by the way she handles a denim jacket. She is, it turns out, recently widowed and lives in a former mining town where there’s no work and she can’t afford to stay. So she hits the road in the van she will live in and which she has made quite cosy, despite the ‘poo bucket’. She is never self-pitying and takes whatever employment she can whether it be at a beet-processing plant or a restaurant or an Amazon fulfilment centre (aka warehouse).
The film has received criticism for presenting Amazon as quite benign when we all know it’s pure evil (she says, while simultaneously ordering something wholly unnecessary to be delivered by 10 p.m. tonight). But one of the joys of Nomadland is that it never becomes an outright heavy-handed polemic. Instead, it’s Fern on the road, meeting and remeeting characters, including a number of real-life nomads appearing as fictionalised versions of themselves, like Linda May (Linda May) and Spankie (Spankie) but not Dave, who is made up and played by the wonderful David Strathairn.
Directed by Chloé Zhao, who is only the second female director to win an Oscar — given that the awards have been going since 1929, this means a woman wins every 45.5 years, which seems reasonable — this is an incidental film rather than one packed with incident. Zhao’s purpose isn’t to tell a story of melodrama, but one of loss. However, because of what we expect from cinema we keep waiting for something terrible to happen, even if it’s just Fern knocking over her poo bucket. But this isn’t like that. She is never in danger. Those we encounter are good and kind and offer sincere friendship. The worst that happens is she breaks a plate, although that’s pretty heartbreaking, to be fair. Yet there is narrative propulsion. Could she live under a roof again with, say, Dave? Or is she now too fond of her freedom?
The cinematography, by Joshua James Richards, features vast, widescreen landscapes often caught stunningly at dusk, so it may be worth seeing at the cinema, if you don’t have to wait in for something wholly unnecessary from Amazon. The soundtrack is too tinkly too often, and the film sometimes repetitive. Everyone, at some point, sits down to explain themselves, and Fern’s sister explains Fern to Fern. But it respects its characters, and admires them, and is never sentimental.
McDormand glues it all together and doesn’t condescend. She seems so rooted in her character it’s beyond acting somehow. This won’t hold everyone — I watched it with another member of my household who declared it ‘boring’ and wandered off — but it’s original, isn’t a remake and doesn’t feature car crashes (although there is a flat tyre).