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Just Like a Woman (***)

Sienna Miller turns in a career best performance…

just like a woman

just_like_a_womanI really think that most filmmakers just don’t know what to do with Sienna Miller. Though hardly known as a towering acting talent, Miller can be pretty good in the right role. Here she gets a real solid one and does a great job in the drama Just Like a Woman. The film itself is decent enough, but the boost from Miller winds up making all the difference here. What otherwise devolves from an intriguing movie about female empowerment to almost a less violent Thelma and Louise knockoff with belly dancing is saved by Miller and her co-star Golshifteh Farahani. Without them, director Rachid Bouchareb‘s work would have come up short. The script by Marion Doussot and Joelle Touma has really only the framework for a compelling story, so it was very much up to Farahani and Miller to come to the rescue. Luckily, they do, and the flick winds up being worthy of a recommendation. Between this and hopefully later this year with Foxcatcher (unless it winds up a 2014 release…I certainly would prefer it not though), Miller is making a play for critical respect in a way that’s so far eluded her for the most part. Her work here is clearly a step forward.

Basically a tale of two women in unhappy marriages, we meet Marilyn (Miller) and Mona (Farahani) as they go about their lives in Chicago. Marilyn is in a failing marriage, a dead end job, and really only is happy or at peace while at her belly dancing classes. Mona shares that passion as well as the rough life, as she’s struggling to deal with her overbearing mother in law due to the fact that she’s so far been unable to bear a child for her husband. When events in both of their lives compel them to leave their homes, the two pseudo friends meet on their way out and decide to head west. Marilyn is hoping to audition for a top notch belly dancing company in Santa Fe, so along the way they try and hone their crafts working odd little gigs, while the whole time Mona conceals a secret. As is befitting this sort of flick, they argue, bond, and grow both as a friends and individually as people. A lot of the events are pretty easy to predict, but there’s some nice acting on display and observing the characters becomes an enjoyable time. It never becomes anything transformative, but you never wind up checking your watch either.

jlawI’ve never expected to outwardly praise Sienna Miller as the best part of a film, but here I am. Previously used as much for her looks as anything, Miller shows some nice depth playing a woman made hard by life but softened by dancing. I really enjoyed watching her work here, including her chemistry with Golshifteh Farahani. Their road trip scenes together were the highlights of the movie. Miller really does her career best work in this picture, which gives me hope for the future of her career. For Miller, this is the sort of de-glam role that helps actresses out a lot, and this is no exception. As for Farahani, she’s put into the background a bit more than I’d have liked, but she’s also quite good here and actually gets the more dramatic story to play with. As mentioned just above, her scenes with Miller are the best in the movie. When they’re apart things are a little less interesting. The supporting cast includes the likes of Chafia Boudraa, Tim Guinee, Jesse Bob Harper, Bahar Soomekh, and Roschdy Zem, but they’re not who captures your attention. It’s 100% Miller and Farahani, with the former beating out the latter for top honors of the flick. She’s best in show for sure.

Director Rachid Bouchareb mostly just wants to keep the camera focused on one or both of the main actresses, so there’s not a whole lot of flashiness here, just a character study. Bouchareb could have paced things a bit better, but he is able to get that aforementioned performance from Miller, so he’s hardly doing poor work here. I wish the screenplay by Marion Doussot and Joelle Touma had set forth more of a plot and had relied a little bit less on contrivances to get the women on the road, but Bouchareb does his best to keep the focus. Perhaps with a little bit better of an ending (the film doesn’t so much end as stop) I would have been bigger on the flick, but mostly this is a decent movie made into something good by a pair of strong performances.

Overall, Just Like a Woman is a nice enough film that’s elevated (yes, elevated) by Sienna Miller’s performance. I don’t imagine anyone will be wild about this movie, but I do think that a lot of folks who give this a chance will be impressed with Miller and what she does here. It’s a role unlike anything she’s ever done before, and I hope it’s not the last time she stretches herself. Almost entirely because of her, this one gets a recommendation from me…

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Written by Joey Magidson

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 300 and 350 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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