Disney+ UK film review: Nomadland
Ivan Radford | On 01, May 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Frances McDormand, David Straithairn
Watch Nomadland online in the UK: Disney+
“People, at birth, are inherently good.” Those were the words of Chloé Zhao when she accepted the Oscar for Best Picture for Nomadland, and that compassion is at the heart of what makes her third feature film such an absorbing, moving gem. Zhao’s work has always been concerned with communities on the fringe of modern America, with a knack for crafting naturalistic drama from ensembles of non-professional actors. Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as Fern, a women in her 60s who embarks on a life as a van-dwelling nomad, and her journey is wrought with that same earnest realism.
We learn immediately that Fern’s situation is the result of the real-life closure of a factory in Empire, Nevada, the economic fallout of which rendered the town and its postcode effectively non-existent. Zhao uses as her inspiration the book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which charts the real-life nomads travelling the USA in search of work after the Great Recession struck in 2008, and some of the figures in that book make an appearance on-screen here – the only other fictional person apart from Fern is another nomad (played with gruff charm by David Strathairn) who may or may not be a romantic interest.
That fact-based approach gives the whole endeavour a poignant impact. And yet Nomadland is also strangely uplifting at the same time, even extending to the moments in which Zhao actually filmed in an Amazon warehouse, where Fern happily goes about her work. Some will be frustrated by Nomadland’s refusal to interrogate the nature of a capitalist society that casually employs people as labour without support, but that simply isn’t the film that Zhao has made. This is a movie about travelling alongside this travelling community, understanding and sharing in the beauty and potential of living outside of exploitative economic structures and the “tyranny of the dollar”, as Bob Wells, a key figure in the movement, declares in one speech at a desert gathering.
Zhao’s camera soaks up the landscape with a gorgeous sense of serenity, and Fern’s weathered face, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning, is a fascinating map of a life hard lived, with each contour refusing to give way to self-pity. McDormand brings every ounce of warmth and kindness to this tough figure, finding mischievous humour among the melancholy. Fern’s sister compares Fern and her fellow travellers to pioneers, but it’s about running away from settling down as much as blazing a trail, and Zhao’s script is able to find the pleasure and pain in a situation that’s simultaneously complicated to explain and yet disarmingly simple.
Driving across the plains against a glowing sunset, if it weren’t for the poetic music of Ludovico Einaudi accompanying the visuals, it could almost be a post-apocalyptic tale of survival after life has been stripped away by a devastating incident. But Nomadland’s strength lies in the fact that, if anything, it’s pre-apocalyptic fiction, a tale of finding the value in life amid a sense of a world ending at some point on the horizon – a heartbreaking and profound portrait of individual resilience and communal support, of personal stillness and collective transience, that carries all the clarity of a documentary.
“And every fair from fair sometime declines, by chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d,” Fern recites from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 in one stunning moment. “But thy eternal summer shall not fade,” she continues. So long as inherent goodness lives, Nomadland reminds us, this gives life to our existence.
Nomadland is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.