Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

Toronto Review: Not even Cynthia Erivo’s performance can save the deeply formulaic ‘Harriet’

Courtesy of TIFF

Kasi Lemmons’ latest is a disappointing, uninspired biopic that fails to engage and whose subject deserves better

Just because a film is about one of the most important icons in US history, that doesn’t guarantee it would be actually of sufficient quality to call it important or worth seeing. Kasi Lemmons’ latest is the latest in a string of biopics seemingly designed to win awards but are made with the least amount of scope, ambition and inspiration. A by-the-numbers, somewhat bland biopic, HARRIET takes an American icon and turns her story into a one-dimensional, disappointingly packaged and too conventionally crafted story.

Living under slavery on a Maryland plantation in the 1840s, the film focuses on Minty (Cynthia Erivo in a fine but sometimes uneven performance) who remains a slave despite her husband being a free man. About half the state’s Black residents are free and half enslaved, Minty included. Determined to carve a better life for herself, she believes that death could be better than living under slavery. And when opportunity comes, she sets out at night, alone, to walk 100 miles north to Philadelphia. Earning her freedom after an arduous journey, she insists on not leaving her family behind. Against all odds, she returns to free them all.

There is no question that it has taken Hollywood quite a long time to mount a proper modern screen adaptation of Harriet Tubman’s incredible story of resilience, faith and determination. Not only is a beacon of strength, hope and empowerment, she embodies the sort of role model that young audiences should definitely be exposed to amidst a saturation of fictional superheroes. Here is a real-life woman who defied all odds and helped free over 70 slaves. Tubman’s accomplishments aside, Lemmons’ film never attempts to transcend the story not offer any insight into what shaped such a pivotal character.

Directed with a straightforward approach that surely feels like a TV film rather than a theatrical picture, the film stumbles for multiple reasons. First, the script makes a significant error in presenting, repeatedly, Harriet’s premonitions and visions, inspired by God as she says. The constant shift forward to her premonitions largely turns the film into a borderline laughable fare. That’s not to say such visions may not have been true, but the way they are structured as a ‘voice from God’ in a significant chunk of Tumban’s dialogue significantly reduces any intrigue, character development or even suspense. Rather than highlight her agency, determination and motivations, the script turns her into some sort of conduit which falls completely flat and is more akin of forced faith-based films that mainly click with a nice audience without crossing over to other audience segments.

The other major issue here is the severely shallow representation of Tumban. Viewers never really get the opportunity to know her. Instead, all they get are pre-packaged one-liners about freedom and faith that hammer the point in repulsive ways. Even when the script does give her a chance to confront her husband who re-marries thinking she’s long dead, the script is so formulaic that you can’t develop sympathy for a supposedly suffering character. Technical credits are also unimpressive: the soundtrack, sparsely used, feels like a template of inspiring and suspenseful music without real inspiration and the cinematography fails to create any sense of grit or atmosphere. Costume designs are a bright spot here, but the overall execution of the picture is largely impacted by the lack of ambition and scope.

Verdict: Formulaic, uninspired and thinly written, HARRIET is a disappointing retelling of an incredibly iconic woman who changed the course of US history.

Grade: C-

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