Mistress of All Evil repackaged as multidimensional heroine
Excepting the horror genre, not many films are named after a villain. Villainesses are even rarer. Moreover, it’s hard to find a fully developed hero in a contemporary special effects-heavy blockbuster.
Maleficent (2014), directed by Robert Stromberg, fills these gaps exquisitely by recasting the iconic Mistress of All Evil as a fairy born into a privileged, human-free life of gallivanting amid an idyllic forest filled with magical inhabitants. Then she meets the boy Stefan, who ultimately betrays her to assume the throne. Jilted lover Maleficent slaps a curse on King Stefan’s daughter: before her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel needle and fall into an eternal sleep, lest she be awakened by true love’s kiss.
The king orders the elimination of all spinning wheels and dispatches his daughter to a remote cottage, where Maleficent immediately finds her.
The majority of the film juxtaposes King Stefan’s self-destructive search for the evasive “villainess” and Maleficent’s relationship with the unsuspecting Aurora.
Initially, the film seems to move toward an eco-tale in the vein of Avatar (2009) when the child Maleficent chides a human intruder for stealing a precious stone from her forest. However, Maleficent veers from this direction and instead focuses on an unlikely relationship between a Goody Two-shoes and a shadowy sorceress. The film offers a moving, if predictable climax and healthy doses of what the best fairy tales deliver: justice and triumph.
A Jolie Good Performance
Having borne Charlize Theron’s overly dramatic portrayal of Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)—the actress made the most of a poorly scripted character—I was concerned that Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent would follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, Jolie, armed with those unmistakable horns and some vicious cheekbones, rises to the occasion.
There are times when Jolie rages. When Maleficent discovers that she has been betrayed, for instance, she conveys first shock with her quiet realization, then shrieking outrage. Fortunately, she avoids the Hollywood cliché of extending her arms and screaming at the sky.
But what truly makes Jolie’s performance a pleasure to watch are her moments of restraint. When Maleficent tells Aurora that “there is evil in this world, hatred and revenge,” one senses both forced constraint and self-castigation in her tone. When people speak to her, Maleficent may stare at them for a couple seconds before responding. Her reserved nature, coupled with her economy of movement and rigid posture, rebels against a real world that never stops talking and moving.
In one of the most endearing scenes, a mud fight breaks out between Aurora and the forest creatures. When a stray splotch of mud hits Maleficent, the revelers look worried and quiet pervades the scene, with one exception: Diaval, Maleficent’s shapeshifting henchman, bursts into laughter. A torrent of mud slams him in the face and as the laughing resumes, Maleficent smiles…slightly.
Go Forth Fearlessly
Disney’s revamp of the villainess joins other blockbusters like the The Hunger Games and Divergent series in the ongoing dialogue about the role of contemporary women both within and beyond the silver screen.
Once, the childless recluse with an unorthodox sense of fashion was restricted to desolate outposts and gloomy alcoves. Now Maleficent has stepped out unabashed. There is something liberating about plopping a gaunt-faced villainess in flowing black robes into a sunny, verdant landscape where a blonde frolics.
“I am not afraid,” Maleficent tells Aurora, who embodies the old-fashioned notion of what a woman should be. Maybe, Maleficent hints, a woman’s success lies not in being whisked away or saved by a man, but rather in her own ingenuity. Maybe they should have named this film Femaleficent. – Douglas J. Ogurek