There is no doubt that Harriet Tubman is a hero, yet rarely does this film hold off from providing reminders of just how extraordinary her achievements were. Time and again the film falls back on repetition: of Tubman running through various forest landscapes; of various family members reluctant to believe in their new leader; of Terence Blanchard’s lacklustre and condescending score. Even Tubman’s own character development goes no further than an oft-cited mantra: “Liberty or Death”. It is surprising, then, to find a genuinely affecting performance from Cynthia Erivo buried beneath the film’s inadequacies. Her wide eyed shock turns to wilful determination, but still Erivo betrays layers of repressed fear, sadness and righteousness behind a brave façade.
It is rare for a film to focus so heavily on conversations with a higher power, outside of biblical epics. Clearly Harriet’s relationship to God is supremely relevant and probably one of the most interesting aspects of this historic figure, though director Kasi Lemmons shies away from probing deeper. Portraying Harriet as some kind of 19th century prophet, the film sees her experience a great many visions of events that are just around the corner – a warning from on high of the dangers her and her family are set to face. But these visions never appear for more than a few seconds, clipped either for brevity’s sake or from fear of backlash.
In a film aiming to cover so much of a life, just about everything seems equally rushed over, or displaced in favour of something far less intriguing. There are moments worth exploring –her relationship with Philadelphians Marie Buchanon and William Still, for example – that are brushed aside to make way for an elongated feud between Tubman and her former owner. Lemmons doesn’t appear to have the confidence to strive for anything unique, settling for characters plucked from the range of civil war era dramas previously released, and speeches that amount to the same level of banality.
Each and every awards season, filmmakers put forward biopics that allow for a brilliant leading performance, and prioritise this above all. This is not necessarily Lemmons’s goal, but her treatment of that fine balance settles decidedly on the side of cliché and safety. Harriet values its own historic importance, and Erivo’s fantastic turn, so highly, that the impact, heart and emotion of the film seem minimised. History is undoubtedly important, and there is no reason that Harriet Tubman’s story should be forgotten. But then, in cinema, so is art, and so is entertainment. And sadly, Harriet is a little too formulaic to achieve much of either.
|What||Harriet film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
22 Nov 19 – 22 Nov 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|