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Film critic Damon Smith reviews Nomadland, this year’s winner of best picture at the Oscars, which streams exclusively on Disney+ from April 30 and screens at UK and Irish cinemas from May 17.
NOMADLAND (12A, 107 mins) Drama/Romance. Frances McDormand, Linda May, Bob Wells, Charlene Swankie, David Strathairn, Melissa Smith, Peter Spears. Director: Chloe Zhao.
In one of the naturalistic conversations tightly woven into the fabric of Nomadland, Bob Wells, a real-life trailblazer for the van-dwelling nomadic lifestyle, explains to Frances McDormand’s widow that members of his free-spirited community never say goodbye.
“We just say, ‘I’ll see you down the road’,” he softly professes.
It is impossible to say farewell to writer-director Chloe Zhao’s achingly beautiful and poetic paean to solitude inspired by Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century.
Directed, produced, written and edited by the Chinese-American filmmaker, this delicate character study lingers fondly in the memory, dedicated to a generation of outsiders who have abandoned conventional living and created self-sufficient communities off the beaten track.
McDormand’s unself-conscious lead performance as a grieving vagabond on the fringes of American society is enriched by a non-professional supporting cast of real-life nomads.
Joshua James Richards’ exquisite cinematography captures tightly wound emotions in the majestic wilderness in every imaginable refraction of natural light, set to the haunting lament of composer Ludovico Einaudi’s score.
Zhao’s elegant script exercises restraint when feelings are most heightened: characters turn their backs on the past without fanfare and when one nomad dies, the tribe tosses rocks into an open fire in remembrance, causing embers to spew heavenwards into a starry firmament.
Nomadland opens with archive images of Empire, a prosperous mining town in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada.
When the gypsum plant closed in 2011, the God-fearing community evaporated, leaving behind a graveyard of weather-beaten empty stores and company homes.
Sixty-something former worker Fern (McDormand) retrieves precious belongings from her storage locker before she hits snow-laden roads in a rusty white van.
A seasonal job fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse tides her over.
One of Fern’s colleagues, Linda May (playing herself), quits the cacophonous shop floor for the serenity of a desert camp run by Bob Wells, which provides “a support network for people who need help now”.
Fern follows Linda May to sun-scorched Arizona, where she is embraced by dispossessed and displaced souls including David (David Strathairn) and Swankie (Charlene Swankie).
Moving between camps and temporary jobs, Fern is pricked with guilt by an overdue reunion with her sister (Melissa Smith) before she confronts the reality of life without her husband.
Using Fern as a dramatic fulcrum, Nomadland cherishes the enduring power of the human spirit on numerous soul-stirring detours without a clearly designated and potentially contrived final destination.
Zhao’s understated and profoundly moving trek into America’s economically ravaged heartland does not draw attention to its simple yet artful construction.
McDormand melts effortlessly into her surroundings, fiercely committed to authenticity in her role whether she is relieving herself in a bucket or tenderly recalling her father’s poignant mantra: “What’s remembered, lives.”
By that simple measure, Nomadland burns brightly.
Best picture: Nomadland
Best actor: Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Father)
Best supporting actor: Daniel Kaluuya (Judas And The Black Messiah)
Best actress: Frances McDormand (Nomadland)
Best supporting actress: Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari)
Best director: Chloe Zhao (Nomadland)
Best animated feature film: Soul
Best cinematography: Erik Messerschmidt (Mank)
Best film editing: Mikkel EG Nielsen (Sound Of Metal)
Best costume design: Ann Roth (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Best original score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste (Soul)
Best original song: Fight For You (Judas And The Black Messiah)
Adapted screenplay: The Father – Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
Original screenplay: Promising Young Woman – Emerald Fennell
Best production design: Mank
Best make-up and hairstyling: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best sound: Sound Of Metal
Best live-action short film: Two Distant Strangers
Best visual effects: Tenet
Best documentary feature: My Octopus Teacher
Best international feature: Another Round (Denmark)
Best animated short: If Anything Happens I Love You
Best documentary short: Colette
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