‘Beatriz at Dinner’ Sundance London Review: A Sleek, Beautifully Staged Chamber Piece About Anger in the Age of Trump

Miguel Arteta’s latest is a simple, angry drama that asks the question: what would you do if you were sat across a dinner table from Donald Trump?  

By Orla Smith

Art reflecting life is a curious question. Lately, we’ve been treated to a number of films that feel very rooted in the age of Trump, yet the nature of film production means that they were birthed long before his presidency.

In all likelihood, as we journey on through these four years, and writers attempt to intentionally capture the brutality of life in 2017, we’ll get some art that’s more bluntly obvious. Even ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ can feel like a direct monologue to the camera at times. It’s lean and angry, maybe a bit hopeless; this is less of a call to arms than a desperate cry fading into the night.

Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant working as a spiritual healer. Beatriz is far less glamorous than the actress herself, yet Hayek has expressed surprise at critics calling her performance ‘transformative’. In her own words, this is the role she saw as closest to her heart and herself. Staring at John Lithgow’s Trumpian hotel manager across a dinner table, it’s easy to imagine the quiet fury bubbling visibly under her skin and in her eyes as directed towards a real man, one whom Hayek has every right to want to harm.

Beatriz is a quiet woman living a calm and simple life. Her home is cosy and small. With both goats and dogs wandering her bedroom, it looks like a warm place to be, unlike the mansion she regularly visits to give massages to Cathy (Connie Britton), a rich woman whom she might call a friend – this house is less of a home; it’s towering, full of cold and shiny surfaces.

When Beatriz’s car breaks down, Cathy invites her to stay for her husband’s work dinner, and while Beatriz quickly and adamantly protests, Cathy is insistent. And so the drama ensues.

A cast of character actors – Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass et al – do well with their wealthy characters, capturing a kind of distanced privilege that never tilts too far into caricature. But the real killer among them is John Lithgow’s Doug Strutt, his swaggering self-importance matching his name. The first thing he does is mistake Beatriz for a housekeeper, and it only goes downhill from there.

What might seem like it’s building up to an epic showdown never quite reaches those exhilarating heights, but the battle of wits that Hayek and Lithgow engage in has its fair share of breathless moments. Most of the time, she watches on calmly, almost bemused. She’s no weak innocent; a particularly passive-aggressive earlier beat sees Beatriz ambushing Doug with a massage, this seeming courtesy allowing her to strap him to his chair and assert a physical dominance that her otherwise small build wouldn’t allow her to achieve. There’s no violence or insults, only the threat of them lurking somewhere in the future.

It’s essentially a film of wish-fulfilment: what would you say if you got to stare Trump in the face and spit all of your hatred and vitriol at him in one impassioned outburst? It would probably look a lot like this, and those words full of fatal venom are the film at its peak. When it attempts to go bigger, the execution falters, and the final beats are curious. While you might not feel satisfied in the moment, there’s something to be said about the honest message the ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ attempts to get across – which is less of a message than a feeling: basically, the world is ending, and all the talk and complaints and anger in the world might well be futile. We all just want to go back to a better place, a time when innocence allowed us to be at peace – before everything went to hell.

Rating: 3.5/5

‘Beatriz at Dinner’ will be released in UK cinemas at a later date

 

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