Mrs America review: Playful, provocative period drama
Ivan Radford | On 08, Jul 2020
Is there anything Cate Blanchett can’t do? As well as exec-producing Carol and wowing in evertying from Elizabeth and Notes on a Scandal to The Talented Mr Ripley, today sees the Lord of the Rings star drop not one but two TV shows on UK screens – and she’s exec-produced and stars in both of them.
Stateless sees Blanchett front and centre in a playful, stylish and serious drama about the 1970s battle in the US for women’s rights. The twist here? Blanchett’s playing for the conservative team. She stars as Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the Republican anti-feminist who was the face of a conservative charge against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) – an amendment to the constitution that would have enshrined gender equality for all Americans.
To pick the wrong side of history and use that launch a TV series at a time when systemic prejudice, abuse and privilege is finally being picked apart is a bold move, to say the least, and it’s one that Blanchett sinks her teeth into. She’s never less than magnetic as Schlafly, a smart, shrewd woman who storms into Washington DC and holds her own in a TV debate with confidence and informed knowledge. That she should be rooting to maintain the status quo is a perplexing notion, and one that Blanchett clearly enjoys toying with; she portrays the campaigner as both forthright and firmly entrenched in society’s sexist traditions, as comfortable speaking her mind as she is saying nothing when asked to take notes in a meeting or smiling for the camera when cut-off mid-speech.
That, in itself, is more than worth tuning in for, but Mrs America doesn’t stop there: this is a star-studded ensemble of all the women involved in the ERA battle. Not least of them is the renowned Gloria Steinem, played brilliantly by Rose Byrne, who is joined by her ally Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Representation Bella Abzug (the always-excellent Margo Martindale). There’s also, on the Republican side, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), who doesn’t sit with Schlafly’s right-wing charge up the popularity wings. On a wider, contestual level, there’s Shirley Chisholm (the remarkable Uzo Aduba) making history as the first black woman to run for the US presidency.
The result is a nuanced and expertly balanced tapestry of voices and values, one that Mad Men veteran Dahvi Waller assembles into witty, captivating screenplays – each episode centres on a different figure, ensuring that they all get a chance to shine in their own complex ways. And yet these figures also try to outshine each other on a frequent basis, often descending into internal disagreements that hamper the advancement of Second Wave feminism. (There’s also fantastic support from James Marsden as a sleazy Republican, Philip Crane, and John Slattery as Fred, Phyllis’ conservative, unchallenged husband.)
Seeing these spouses’ uninspired chemistry behind closed doors only adds to the intrigue of Schlafly’s motivations. Is it insecurity about what she might do if not be the traditional wife and mother? Is it just a ploy to help give her own political career a boost? Either are plausible, or maybe it’s a bit of both, but that puzzle raises pertinent questions of complicity and conformity, but also authority and identity. At a time when abortion access is being attacked and undermined in the USA, and as the #MeToo movement exposes abuse of power on a horribly widespread scale, women’s rights have never been more important to support. Looking back at how the world got to this state today, and dissecting the individual actions and interactions that can spark movements or seal their demise, this is a timely, highly entertaining piece of television – and, at the heart of it all, it reminds us that this divisive, disagreeable activist was a human being too. Add that to the list of things Blanchett can do.
Mrs America premieres with a double-bill at 9pm on BBC Two on Wednesday 8th July. Episodes air weekly and are available live and on-demand on BBC iPlayer.