Awards Watch: Mudbound – gripping page-turner to solemn Netflix prestige

“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.

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The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, does seem to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.

One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.

There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, and warning voters that the movie should not be overlooked.

For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud (book Laura resentfully names their new home “Mudbound”).

The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), with the latter keeping house for the McAllans. Their voices (the film keeps the novel’s strategy of switching narration between six characters, but stays light on the exposition) are joined by Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.

The friendship between the two veterans riles the local racists, including the vile McAllan patriarch, Pappy. The film, like the novel, starts with the end – Pappy’s burial. But in the book we know immediately that his death wasn’t the “natural, timely passing of an old man” – something that isn’t resolved until the final chapters.

Laura becomes increasingly infatuated with her handsome pilot brother-in-law after he appears at the homestead in his uniform and aviator sunglasses, but unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t jealously check his shirts for lipstick and perfume, or take her frustrations out on Florence.

Some writers have described the movie as being focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders…”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees focuses primarily on the friendship between two men: Jamie and Ronsel, with Hedlund’s Jamie portrayed as more heroic and enlightened than his book counterpart, whom Laura eventually pities, realizing she married the better – if dull and dependable – brother.

So much of Jordan’s gripping historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s tragic yet funny encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography.

Morrison’s deserved Oscar nod makes her the first woman nominated in the category, while Blige became a best supporting actress nominee for her performance as Florence, despite doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed. Dee Rees, meanwhile, is nominated for adapted screenplay, for turning a compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.