Dir: Cathy Yan. Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor. 15 cert, 109 mins.
What’s a girl to do when she’s been unceremoniously dumped? A post-break-up haircut is a necessity, of course. A new hobby helps, too. Why not make a few friends and break a few noses at the local roller derby? And do remember to blow up the chemical plant where you jumped into a vat of acid in order to pledge your love towards a maniacal, murderous clown – you know, for closure. Welcome to the mind of Harley Quinn, enshrined in all the sequin-encrusted girliness and bone-smashing violence of Birds of Prey. Here, all the daily joys and hurdles of a woman’s experience are deftly woven into the larger-than-life fabric of the comic-book film. It’s as smart in its approach as it is carefree in its execution.
And it’s about time a character like Harley Quinn got her dues. As played by Margot Robbie, she was the silver lining of 2016’s Suicide Squad. That film was a nauseating attempt to bring pop-punk irreverence to the (at that time) grim and grimy DC cinematic universe. But Robbie, despite spending much of her screen time in shiny bikini bottoms plucked from a costume store’s bargain bin, was witty and anarchic in just the right the doses. Birds of Prey lets her blossom: she’s the devil-may-care party girl who glides by on bravado and dumb luck. And, until now, she’s always been “Joker’s girl” – the psychiatrist who went mad and fell for her patient, who gave her the freedom to do whatever she wants to whomever she wants. What happens when that protection is yanked away and she’s left to fend for herself, now suddenly the target of every Gotham citizen with a grudge to bear?
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Harley has found herself ideal caretakers in director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson (although credit should also go to Robbie, who spearheaded and produced the film). The film is driven by first-person narration, as it jumps back and forth in time. Yan draws inspiration from the kinetic, delirious visions of Baz Luhrmann: there’s a hallucinatory homage to Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and a club scene played in fast forward, in which Harley skitters across the dancefloor and throws up in another woman’s purse. And then there are the action scenes, which are both unflinchingly violent and delightfully inventive (who knew there were that many uses for a baseball bat?). It’s all Harley to a tee.
At times, it’s true, you feel the rising nerves of studio executives faced with a comic-book film that simply does look like any comic-book film that’s gone before. That probably explains why the film is so overstuffed with girl-power anthems, old and new. It’s an overcompensation that fails to grasp how richly drawn Harley and the women she crosses paths with (the eventual Birds of Prey) are. Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is a laser-sharp detective who’s been walked all over one too many times – first by her former partner, then by her ex-girlfriend (the film takes a small, but significant step forward when it comes to LGBT+ representation). Mary Elizabeth Winstead offers an unexpectedly nuanced, compassionate portrayal of PTSD in her role as Huntress, a mysterious assassin with a traumatic past. Ella Jay Basco is sweetly funny as tween pickpocket Cassandra Cain, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell brings a lightness of touch to Black Canary, a lounge singer with a secret.
Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask, meanwhile, serves as the perfect foil to these women – he’s a wealthy crime lord who’s determined to take control of Gotham by any means necessary. He’s also a vain, little toddler of a man dressed in plush velvet who cries and screams when he doesn’t get his way and relies constantly on the affections of his henchman Victor Zsasz (a skulking, cackling Chris Messina, who’s somehow more hyena-like than the film’s actual hyena). But the trick of McGregor’s performance is that, occasionally, his pearly white smile will fade and something truly sinister will take hold.
Within all this noise, what’s notable is that Hodson’s script is packed with the kind of small actions and moments of recognition that only a film made by women would ever think to include. Even when they’re at each other’s throats, these women are still bound by certain shared experiences. But this isn’t the kind of boardroom-designed, slogan-spouting style of feminism we’re used to from Hollywood. No one here has to justify their existence. No one has to serve as an ideal role model. In Birds of Prey, the girls just get to have fun.