'Woman Walks Ahead': Film Review | TIFF 2017

A very odd couple's meeting of minds on the Great Plains.

Susanna White's film tells the story of Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from New York who travels to South Dakota to do a portrait of Sitting Bull.

Woman Walks Ahead neatly fits the description of the sort of Western Hollywood never made in the old days, an unusual female-centric true-life tale of a wealthy East Coast woman who, in the waning days of the Indian wars, heads West spurred by a passionate belief in the Native American cause and an ambition to paint a portrait of Hunkpapa Lakota holy man Sitting Bull. But despite the estimable talent on hand both behind and in front of the camera, the story never comes to convincing life and doesn’t, in the end, have anywhere particularly surprising or interesting to go. Theatrical box office prospects are decidedly limited.

It’s easy to sympathize with the main elements that attracted talent to the story — a central female character who, in midlife, decides to liberate herself from an unhappy marriage to pursue an almost unthinkable goal, mixed with a portrait of the final months in the life of one of the West’s most iconic Native Americans.

But what emerges feels overly polite, sanitized and removed of uncomfortable rough edges that might have given such a film a greater feel of reality. The final result feels too satisfied with its modern liberal, politically enlightened view of things when some harsh bluntness, greater anthropological and political detail, not to mention a little Sam Fuller- or John Milius-style impudence and historical esoterica, might have jolted it to life.

Jessica Chastain has of late been playing almost nothing but take-charge types with guts and gumption (Zero Dark Thirty, Miss Sloane, Molly’s Game) and wealthy New York widow Catherine Weldon can certainly be described that way. At the same time, however, considerable old Hollywood-style liberties have been taken to make the screen story more physically alluring than a proper historically correct telling would have been. In real life, Weldon (who was actually divorced, not widowed, and had changed her given name to Caroline, not Catherine) was 54 years old when she made the journey in 1889, with her illegitimate 12-year-old son in tow. Sitting Bull was in his late 50s at the time, so the filmmakers made a calculated decision to cast notably attractive lead actors some 15 years younger in the roles, and then to dump the kid altogether (in real life the son died shortly after Sitting Bull did in 1890, giving a doubly tragic end to Weldon’s expedition).

What screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Locke) does instead is to present a plaintive look at a highly unlikely relationship dotted with moments of connection and mutual sympathy. After tossing a portrait of her husband in the river before leaving New York (whether it was painted by her own hand is not mentioned), Catherine, who’s Swiss by birth and sports a soft British accent, hops on a train and arrives with loads of luggage in the new state of South Dakota, where she’s disdainfully welcomed as an “Indian lover” and must drag her trunk through a drought-ridden place with no resemblance to what she considers civilization.

She meets the local U.S. military boss (Ciaran Hinds), who is himself married to an Indian woman and hates Washington but nonetheless tells Catherine that she should get on the next train back East. Her obstinance prevails, of course, and at length she’s taken to a poor little settlement near which Sitting Bull (the lithe, tall and handsome Canadian actor-dancer Michael Greyeyes) is quietly tending a field.

What follows rather resembles the form, if not the substance, of the kind of verbal sparring often associated with romantic combustion in movies. A man of few words when he so chooses, Sitting Bull teases and taunts the unlikely visitor, and when she presses him about sitting for the portrait, he consents, but only if she pays him $1,000 (roughly $25,000 today). She agrees, knowing that the money will be put to the kind of good community use she would endorse.

Although the battles are over, currents of resentment and racism still swirl virulently through the brilliant plains air, and bad attitudes aplenty are expressed by whites not keen on this haughty New York woman who’s come all this way to honor Sitting Bull and snub them. What awaits the Natives in terms of deprivation and marginalization is clear from the attitudes of General Cook (Bill Camp) and sneering soldier Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell), and there’s clearly no long-term role for a woman like Catherine in this situation.

Knight and White have rightly resisted any temptation to build the Catherine-Sitting Bull relationship into something it never was, but what’s left to the characters in terms of conversation is relatively low-key and insufficient to imbue the film with much of a charge. There’s wisdom and character built of experience on both sides, but it doesn’t take the film to a level higher than one of respectable interest. Chastain and Greyeyes deliver all that the script allows, which doesn’t include deeper feelings or subtext that would have made the characters more complex.

Mike Eley’s cinematography and Geoffrey Kirkland’s aptly spare production design grandly fill the wide screen, while New Mexico locations fill in for the actual Dakota settings a thousand miles away.

Production: Bedford Falls Company, Black Bicycle Entertainment
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Michael Greyeyes, Chaske Spencer, Sam Rockwell, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Rulan Tangen, Louisa Krause
Director: Susanna White
Screenwriter: Steven Knight
Producers: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Erika Olde, Richard Solomon, Andrea Calderwood
Executive producers: Tanja Tawakjoh, Lisa Wolofsky, Susan Kirr, Rory Aitken, Norman Mercy
Director of photography: Geoffrey Kirkland
Production designer: Geoffrey Kirkland
Costume designer: Stephanie Collins
Editors: Lucia Zucchetti, Steven Rosenblum
Music: George Fenton
Casting: Kerry Bardem, Paul Schnee, Rene Haynes
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala)

101 minutes