‘The Homesman’, a ‘homely’ woman and why I was bored with it all

Picture the scene: I invite round some friends, we order a nice take- away and watch a movie. Expectations run high as we choose the 2014 film ‘The Homesman’, starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and also starring Hilary Swank and Meryl Streep. There’s a good cast, a promising film, and critics are calling it the best film since Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, so we think it will be good. The wine is open, the slipper socks are on and the food is delivered bang on time: crispy papadums, a tasty sagwalla and some nice basmati rice. We all snuggle down and press the on button, and the title comes up: ‘The Homesman’.

Firstly, we are treated to Swank, whose character is self-sufficient and independent and a dreamer. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, 31 years old, single and single-handedly working her smallholding in 19th century Nebraska. She ploughs, she pumps water, she cooks, all this in a dress, with a smile on her face as wide as the Nebraskan landscape. She invites some grubby local farming guy to dinner, proposes marriage after singing sweetly to him and he has the audacity to turn her down. We discover he thinks she is ‘plain as an old tin pail… and bossy.’

I write this gender imbalance off as 19th century patriarchal culture and I continue to try to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the movie.

Mary Bee then volunteers to cross difficult terrain in order to fetch three ‘mad women’ back home, to be cared for in the church, because the dishonourable menfolk of the town refuse to make the journey; she is brave and determined and has leadership and team spirit. Before she begins her quest, she saves the life of a weak, aimless army deserter who is a cheat and a coward, who calls himself ‘George Briggs’, and she cajoles him into accompanying her, as recompense for her charity.

The ‘mad women’ have lost their wits through abuse and bereavement and their men are quite happy to let them go, like they would send an old mare to the knackers or chuck out a broken chair, so the wives are packed up, chained and barred in an old wagon.

Swank is great in this film. Her character is plausible and poignant: she has guts and panache, but it ends badly when she proposes to the unprepossessing and unpleasant Briggs. He turns her down but, when she appears at his sleeping bag, naked, he is kind enough to give her a quick seeing to, and of course this reinforces her lonely plight, and there is a shocking outcome the next morning.

We are led to believe that such was the dilemma of women in the 1850s, a choice between bad marriage or the lonely and demoralising social lowliness of spinsterhood. So good old Briggs brings the loony ladies to a sweet home where the church can look after them, after he has meted out a few punishments to some bad men and become a bit of a rogue hero on the way, binge shooting and setting fire to a hotelier who will not give them food.

He buys shoes for a barefoot sixteen year old, telling her sentimentally that Mary Bee was the best of women, and then he abruptly suggests that the kid marries him. No wonder she turns up her nose. It was enough to put me off my roti.

Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

If the film intended to show me that a woman’s lot was not a happy one – there they all are, strong, lovely, and alone in an unforgiving landscape while the only male, a whisky-soaked deserter, was there to judge them plain or mad, turn down their advances, chain them up and call all the shots – then it did it’s job well. I would go further. Swank’s Mary Bee was neither plain nor useless, although Lee Jones’ Briggs was both of these things his rejection cost her dearly. The film gave me no logical reason why she should be so suddenly desperate, other than the prevalent history and culture, and it is odd that she proposes to the one-dimensional Briggs out of the blue, moments after castigating him for his bad character.

The ‘mad women’ were parodies, stereotypes, hissing and wailing at one moment, then staring into space, and then being meek, doing as they were told. They were neither credible people nor objects of pathos. They were tangential to the story, other than being ‘mad’ and, once deposited at the church where kindly Meryl Streep, a vicar’s wife, said they’d be looked after, they were forgotten for the rest of the film. Their care, cure and rehabilitation didn’t matter at all. Despite being the impetus for the story, there is no emotional investment, by the audience, in them or in their future.

I got nothing from this film. It was disjointed in its story line and I thought it was a little unclear about it’s purpose. It was indulgent and too long, and if it intended just to be bleak and show us how tough it was to be a woman 150 years ago, then Tommy Lee Jones’ character didn’t serve to make that point credibly. Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee begins the film strongly: then all of a sudden she is so desperate, even a bum won’t have her, so she immediately loses all hope.

I didn’t feel that the positive role model who failed so miserably made much sense – the wonderful Hilary Swank, giving up so readily when she had so much to offer – and for so little in Tommy Lee Jones! Maybe that was the whole point, but then the film went on to turn the hapless Briggs into some sort of quasi-messianic dispenser of justice who gambled and drank and danced on a boat while his memo to Mary Bee floated off into indivisibility, becoming, just as she was, unnoticed. Was that the point, as he ambles on to the end, drunk and raucous?

It’s at this point that if the film’s moral is one which shows women’s meagre lifestyle and their few options, I hope women of our time have changed considerably, and are no longer faced with the lack of choices which caused Mary Bee to do what she did. I am surrounded by airbrushed Facebook images of females who put up gorgeous pictures of themselves so that friends and various sycophants will tell them how lovely they look. Some people still dress little girls as pink princesses and urge them to simper and stamp their feet: the aspiration is that they will ‘break hearts’ when they grow up but we should maybe urge them to break rules and to become independent, strong and to follow their own desires.

I know women who deny themselves and castigate themselves so they will not go unnoticed, or that they will appear more attractive to others. What they look like is of most importance to them, and it comes before health, happiness or self-respect. How good they look is entirely based on someone else’s opinion. Like poor Mary Bee Cuddy.

The most beautiful women I know radiate inner confidence: they don’t care less about what others think of their appearance. Of course they look good and want to look good, on their own terms, in their own skin. One woman I know is fifty, attractive because of her wit, her iconoclasm, her intellect and her refusal to take on board others’ expectations. Another one I know is in her twenties, fiercely clever, fiercely independent, following her own future – no one would dare to write on her face book page ‘Oh you look gorgeous, babe.’ She knows she looks good, but she is focused on much bigger issues like having fun and being successful on her own terms. Everyone wants to look good, of course, but that ‘good’ should not be decided by someone else: certainly not the contemporary George Briggses of this world.

I didn’t like ‘The Homesman’ as a film: it was lengthy, prevaricating and, at times, pointless, but if it tells us anything, it is that Mary Bee should have ignored the old drunken bum, not rescued him and gone on instead to live her own life, singing and ploughing and cooking, and looking great pushing the plough and horse in her dress, and she should have paid no attention to those who called her plain and bossy. She was strong, lovely and admirable.

Mr Nice Guy might have turned up one day – they usually do, there are many of them out there – and the ones she propositioned weren’t worth the paper from my takeaway meal. And, of course,  if Mr Right didn’t turn up, she could have invited the three ‘mad women’ round for peach pie and had a bloody good time on her own terms.

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