Film

Nomadland review: Deeply moving and often hauntingly beautiful

The Oscar-winner coming to British screens on April 30 is nowhere near as romanticised as other road movies, writes Graeme Virtue,

Frances McDormand stands in front of Nomadland

Frances McDormand in the Oscar-winning film Nomadland. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios

When you get down to brass tacks, the award-winning Nomadland is essentially a road movie. It is nowhere near as romanticised as other entries in that durable cinematic genre where characters go on an episodic journey and learn something along the way. But its evocation of the rough-and-ready margins of modern American life is deeply moving and often hauntingly beautiful.

It is anchored by an astonishing performance from Frances McDormand, veteran star of Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand was also instrumental in bringing the story to the screen: she personally optioned Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book profiling peripatetic older folks following the tides of seasonal employment across the USA.

McDormand’s self-reliant Fern may live in a slightly ramshackle van and appear in practically every scene but this is not a vanity-fluffing star vehicle. We witness her learning the valuable road skill of peeing in the open air before the appearance of the film’s title card.

Fern has been widowed twice over; her husband has passed away and the Nevada mining town she called home is dead too, a victim of seemingly endless recession. Rootless and short on cash, she hits the road with just a few keepsakes and becomes part of the loosely defined band of itinerant workers roaming the highways in vans and campers.

This “RV army” drifts around where there are jobs going, from Amazon packing at Christmas to tour-guiding in the summer season, bartering goods and tips about work opportunities along the way. It is a detailed but sobering glimpse at the hardscrabble reality facing thousands of Americans for whom leisurely retirement is a pipe dream.

The wider community is welcoming and the likeable Fern makes friends easily – she clearly enchants the slightly hapless Dave (David Strathairn), who attempts to convince her to settle down again – but everything feels fragile and precarious. This is not a world of safety nets.

As well as adapting Bruder’s book, director Chloé Zhao recruited many of its interview subjects to essentially reprise their roles and it is interesting to consider how McDormand and Strathairn might have had to recalibrate their own acting styles to create what ends up being a powerfully cohesive whole.

But if the near-documentary approach of real faces and real places helps give Nomadland its powerful aura of lived-in authenticity, it does not feel overly didactic. You are encouraged to imagine for yourself some of the potential upsides of the tough nomadic life.

In an atypical awards season, Nomadland has already won four Baftas and three well-deserved Oscars to its haul. In a cosmic twist, Zhao has since joined the Disney empire, directing Angelina Jolie in the Marvel space fantasy Eternals, a tale of intergalactic succession unlikely to feature many non-actors. It just goes to show: you never know where the road is going to take you.

Four stars out of five

@GraemeVirtue

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