Film

How Anya Taylor-Joy cornered the Complex Female Character market

Simultaneously hard-edged and fragile, Taylor-Joy roots her character in a mass of contradictions

Taylor-Joy, seen here as Olga in The Northman Photo: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Over the past decade, there has been an unending discussion taking place in Hollywood about the Complex Female Character (second only to the Strong Female Character): who she is, how she behaves, why she is so important. Women, we are reminded, have been so poorly represented throughout the history of film that we need a corrective, one that will balance out decades of institutional misogyny and the male gaze. 

It has been a persistent conversation, and mostly an annoying one, partly because no one ever clamours for strong or complex male characters and partly because the superficiality of the trope obfuscates genuinely thoughtful and exciting cinematic explorations of gender and femininity.

It is in these explorations – infinitely richer and less soundbite-y – that Anya Taylor-Joy, star of Robert Eggers’ brutal new Viking epic The Northman, specialises.

Having only been in the business for a handful of years, her career is already populated with the kind of carefully considered, enigmatic roles that the Complex Female Character can only dream of. Her characters are strange, wild creatures even when they are buttoned-up and prim: sleek hair and innocent eyes a disguise for something more defiant, wanting, and distinctly unfeminine.

As the sorceress Olga in The Northman, Taylor-Joy comes full circle with the very first film of her career: Eggers’ unsettling and subversively emancipatory folk horror The Witch.

Set in the early days of America’s colonisation, The Witch follows a Puritan family trying to eke out a pitiful existence in New England, whose bonds to their faith and each other are pushed to breaking point by a lurking evil in the nearby woods. As Thomasin, the family’s quiet and obedient daughter, Taylor-Joy is a powder-keg of ripening womanhood and suppressed original sin.

Taylor-Joy makes Thomasin strikingly naturalistic in the midst of claustrophobically orchestrated horror, her quiet demeanour and relentless toil belying a primal and yearning interior life. Taylor-Joy’s tactile, embodied performance deftly balances the tension between outward duty and long-repressed wildness, incisively laying bare historic anxieties around witchcraft and female agency: of what might happen if women’s latent desires are ever let loose. 

The Witch was the first film of Taylor-Joy’s career and her remarkable, tightly coiled performance exemplifies a different kind of Final Girl, one who refuses to be pulled into the horror genre’s historically moralising lens.

She took up the role again with Edgar Wright’s most recent pseudo-horror flick Last Night in Soho, in which she plays Sandie, a young girl with big dreams in 1960s swinging London whose possible murder haunts the present-day of fashion student Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie).

Whatever you think of the politics of the film – and I have to admit, I am not a fan of its prudish urban panic and girlboss feminism – Taylor-Joy’s performance pushes back against the expectations of women in horror, muddying the waters between victim and villain. Simultaneously hard-edged and fragile, Taylor-Joy roots her character in a mass of contradictions, crafting a horror heroine whose engagement with traditional imaginations of femininity – soft and innocent and guileless – is but a shifting mask.  

In these roles, Taylor-Joy epitomises a kind of female difficulty: a hostile, at times unpalatable femininity that challenges expectations of likeability and sympathy.

The Northman is in cinemas now

Her work in period films, themselves a highly gendered genre, has been equally subversive, seen particularly in Netflix’s runaway success miniseries The Queen’s Gambit and Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Emma.

Jane Austen famously described Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” and Taylor-Joy makes her just that, a study in bristling, self-sufficient womanhood. Unique among Austen’s female protagonists as financially independent and able to eschew the economic necessity of marriage, Emma has always been beyond social obligations, and in Taylor-Joy’s hands she is deliciously selfish and aloof. Her Emma is as prickly and precise about her wants as she is about the fall of her neat, corkscrew curls, and her journey through the film is less a gendered taming than a gradual, humanist shift from solipsism to empathy. Love makes her a better person, not a compliant woman. 

The Northman is the latest in a long line of Taylor-Joy’s investigations into the twisted, ambivalent nature of femininity in cinema. With a lead role in Furiosa, the prequel to George Miller’s masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road, already in the works, it is clear that her investigations are only just beginning. 

The Northman is out now in cinemas. Anahit Behrooz is a writer and editor @anahitrooz

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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