July Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

In a way, Disney’s Maleficent embodies the two growing trends in Hollywood family entertainment. A retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty, this time, from the point of view of the evil fairy who curses the princess, the film is the latest in a series of movies made in recent years which humanise villains of popular children’s stories. There was the funny but forgettable Mirror Mirror(2012) and the pretty much atrocious Oz the Great and Powerful(2013), among others. The second, more exciting trend is that of films redefining the concept of true love, where the action does not revolve around the obtaining of a Prince Charming, and where core relationships are between women. Brave (2012) tackled the fraught but loving relationship of a mother and daughter and last year’s blockbuster Frozen (2013) focused on two sisters and Maleficent also revolves around two women. But while Maleficent utilises both these trends in innovative ways, it is not nearly as good as it should have been.

Which is such a shame, because Angelina Jolie is just fabulous in her role as the eponymous villain/hero. She has fully embraced the fun and the darkness of the character, and whether it is giving her opponents a disdainful smile, having a tender moment with surrogate daughter Aurora or expressing anguish at having been betrayed, Jolie portrays every emotion with a depth and aplomb that is just a joy to watch. The famous scene where Maleficent gate crashes Princess Aurora’s christening and throws around sass and insults, before cursing the princess to a life of eternal sleep, shows Jolie at her best. The character is also made to be more silent than villains of this kind usually are, so Jolie has the opportunity to convey a whole range of emotions with just a glance — something she does remarkably well. She steals every scene she’s in, and when she’s not on-screen, the loss is felt significantly. Her naturally high cheekbones accentuated with prosthetics and her wolf-like eyes also help, which the film correctly recognises, giving us stunning close-up shots of her leather horns-adorned face.

But while Jolie’s performance is the one aspect of Maleficent done perfectly, the film falters in other respects. The story starts out promisingly enough — with a young Maleficent befriending a human, Stefan. Their friendship evolves into young love, but Stefan’s growing ambitions tempt him away from Maleficent and into the human world,  where he wants to become king. Years later, in his continued obsession with becoming king, the adult Stephan (Sharlto Copley) betrays Maleficent in the worst possibly way: he cuts away her majestic wings in a brutal scene which is metaphorically resonant as an allegory of sexual assault. It is therefore understandable that Maleficent, full of vengeance and hurt, decides to curse his daughter, Aurora, to prick her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday and fall into an eternal sleep which can only be broken by true love’s kiss (a caveat Maleficent only adds because she no longer believes true love exists).

But after cursing her, Maleficent, aided by her sidekick Diaval (Sam Reily, who is funny and sweet in the role), continues to watch over baby Aurora who has been left in a cottage in the woods under the care of three bumbling fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville). They’re meant to provide comic relief, but their hijinks get aggravating very fast. The relationship between Maleficent and the teenaged Aurora (Elle Fanning, who captures the lightness and innocence of the character well) is by far the most interesting thread of the entire narrative, but this is where the film falters. Their relationship is extremely underdeveloped, and one is just supposed to assume that their growing bond is strong enough to overcome Maleficent’s dark side, without the film actually showing this growth. This has the effect of considerably lessening the impact of the climax, which is in itself a clever subversion of the traditional view of true love. It is a payoff that doesn’t feel earned.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s July 2014 issue under the headline, “Reimagining Villains”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.