Frances McDormand as Fern in Nomadland. Photo / Supplied.

The Venice Film Festival's Top Winner 'Nomadland' Is Thrilling & Bittersweet

Chloé Zhao’s brilliant film takes the Golden Lion

Is Fern (Frances McDormand) in love with moving on, or just afraid of staying put? That’s the question which beats away at the aching heart of Nomadland - the deeply intimate and desolately beautiful new film from Chloé Zhao, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Friday and won the Golden Lion for best film 24 hours later.

Zhao’s tremendous third feature was inspired by a recent nonfiction book by the journalist Jessica Bruder about America’s growing population of middle-aged drifters, who were forced out of their homes by the 2008 recession and on to the road in search of work.

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Fern is one of them. A widow from the defunct mining town of Empire, Nevada, she loads her belongings into a tatty camper van and begins a criss-crossing journey through the American hinterland, taking employment and companionship wherever she can find it. The landscapes here are as vast and ravishing as in any western, but the direction of travel isn’t towards a new frontier. Rather, it’s to the nearest Amazon warehouse, or campsite, or sugar beet farm, or wherever else the prospect of a job might briefly arise.

WATCH: Nomadland trailer

“I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless” is how she explains her situation to a concerned teenage girl in the supermarket, whose mother employed Fern as a tutor the last time she passed through town. Fern asks the girl if she can remember anything from their lessons, and she responds with a recitation of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth. Then it’s back to the van and on to the next town, as Fern’s own tomorrows continue to creep on at petty pace.

Yet she wouldn’t have it any other way. Distant connections, not lasting ties, are what seem to bring Fern delight: one of the few times her furrowed face lights up unreservedly is during a campsite chat about the particles in the human body having been forged in stars. So when she meets a wirily handsome fellow traveller called Dave (David Strathairn), who makes the gentlest romantic overtures towards her, it’s as if she won’t allow herself to even entertain the thought of acknowledging them. When the poor chap finally lays his feelings on the line, Fern’s tight smile seems to convey five different emotions at once.

McDormand’s performance here is one of the very finest of a career that’s hardly been short on striking work. It’s the flip side of her fire-and-brimstone turn in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - subtle, egoless and unadorned, with the mesmerising slow-burn quality of embers in the grate.

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Fern is initially hard to warm to: the film’s frankness around lavatorial matters alone makes sure of that. Yet we slowly relax in her company, and the moments where she briefly lets down her guard - a skinny-dip in a forest stream, a later recitation of more Shakespeare, namely Sonnet 18 - all land with a delicate yet overpowering force.

The fact that McDormand is one of the only professional actors here only strengthens the spell. As in Zhao’s previous films, including her 2017 breakthrough The Rider, many members of Nomadland’s cast use their real names on screen, and play characters whose lives are heavily informed by their own.

Fern’s conversations with them during her travels don’t just feel truthful but lived in - the sheer compassion of Zhao’s direction is one of the film’s most elemental pleasures, while McDormand is one of those rare actors who can somehow make the act of listening as thrilling as a barnstorming speech.

Looking and thinking, too. In one of Nomadland’s most subtly electric scenes, Fern finds herself in the kind of settled domestic environment she has long resisted, and allows herself to indulge in a brief, bittersweet game of what-if. As Fern sits at the dining table, the camera roves around the room, and you can feel the wheels of her imagination turning, exploring the possibilities of the road she didn’t pick. Then she stands, neatly tucks her chair away, and leaves.

- The Daily Telegraph


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