out of Five
Running time: 102
Beautifully shot and superbly directed, this is a haunting and powerful drama with a terrific performance from Isabelle Huppert.
What's it all about?
Directed by Claire Denis (who grew up in Africa), White Material stars Isabelle Huppert as Maria Vial, a coffee plantation owner in an unnamed African country whose workers start deserting her as a violent civil war erupts between the army and a band of rebels lead by The Boxer (Isaac de Bankole). Ignoring pleas to leave, Maria stubbornly attempts to recruit new workers, seemingly unaware of how serious her situation is.
Meanwhile, an injured Boxer takes refuge on Maria's property, while Maria's layabout son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) becomes deranged after a violent encounter with two rebel army children. At the same time, Maria's ex-husband Andre (Christophe Lambert) attempts to make a deal with local bigwig Cherif (William Nadylam), hoping that he will lend them his private army for protection.
Isabelle Huppert is superb as Maria, delivering a complex performance that still manages to retain our sympathy even when her stubbornness begins to look like reckless endangerment. There's also strong support from Duvauchelle (whose character arc is both disturbing and horrifying) and it's a treat to see Christophe Lambert in a decent film again.
The film is beautifully shot throughout, with impressive cinematography by Yves Cape and several striking images, such as the scene where the soldiers slowly emerge from the greenery or the shots of Maria standing alone on the dusty road, her white dress billowing around her in the wind. Denis also orchestrates several quietly powerful scenes that unfold differently to the way you might expect from a more traditional version of the same story (such as Hotel Rwanda) but are genuinely haunting and all the more effective for being understated.
In addition, there's a superb score from Stuart Staples (lead singer of Tindersticks) that adds considerably to the atmosphere of the film, building a sense of creeping dread throughout.
This is a powerful, haunting drama with striking cinematography and a terrific performance from Isabelle Huppert. The arthouse-averse should also note that it's probably Claire Denis' most accessible film to date. Recommended.
White Material (15)