Seberg review: Kristen Stewart is magnetic
James R | On 05, May 2020
Director: Benedict Andrews
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie
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The year is 1957. Joan of Arc is being burned at the stake for what she believes. And, in real life, Jean Seberg on that movie’s set is also being burnt by director Otto Preminger, making for an auspicious, scarring screen debut – an experience that reminds us immediately that the world remains a man’s one, with women considered collateral damage along the way. It’s no wonder, then, that Kristen Stewart, one of the most talented and interesting actors of modern cinema, should choose to play Seberg in a biopic that follows Jean’s own principled stand – in support of civil rights.
Flying to America in the 1960s, the French New Wave star meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an activist connected to the Black Panthers. A shared salute in solidarity on the runway later, and Jean finds herself going to his place for a discussion of how she can make a difference – along with other, more intimate interactions. That, however, puts her on the radar of the FBI’s surveillance team – specifically, agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who is tasked with capturing her every move with the aim of gathering information and ultimately discrediting the Black Power movement.
It’s a plot that’s right out of a movie, so it’s easy to see why writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse chose to turn the events into a screenplay. It initially seems like too much to cover in one film: there’s sinister intrigue in the Bureau’s actions, including the domestic dynamics that surround Jack’s colleague, Carl (played with stern conservative morals by Vince Vaughn); there’s a moving turn by Zazie Beetz (Joker) as Dorothy, the wife of Hakim, who finds in Seberg’s glamorous do-gooder an unwelcome threat; and there’s suspense in Jean’s suspicion of being watched, which puts a strain on her marriage with fellow creative Romain Gary (Yvan Attal).
With the script dropping the occasional clunky line of dialogue to try and fit all of these characters and plotting into a conventional two-hour thriller, director Benedict Andrews smartly hangs the whole thing on the shoulders of his leading lady. If the best moments of Seberg are when Kristen Stewart is on screen, Andrews channels his knack for crafting an atmosphere of chilling surveillance – he directed A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic – into building a voyeuristic story powered by growing paranoia.
Stewart is magnetic, even (or especially) when silent; after years of playing introverted ofcharacters with a talent for conveying inner conflict, it’s a treat to see Stewart fuse that intensity with old-fashioned movie stardom, shining with a charisma that matches Jean’s sun-yellow dresses and beach-blonde hair.
DoP Rachel Morrison (Mudbound, Black Panther) works with Andrews to recreate the period with a gorgeous sense of colour – even in the opening recreation of Preminger’s Joan of Arc. But while things could happily stay at that vivid surface level, Seberg isn’t afraid to become more complex as it goes on, with O’Connell’s surprisingly sympathetic agent drawing out the personal costs on all sides of the state-sanctioned intrusion. A prologue involving Jack and Jean is an ambiguous climax that lingers after the end credits roll, turning what might have been a conventional biopic into a thoughtful exploration of politics, privacy and personal conviction.
Seberg is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.