A Good Woman Is Hard To Find cements director Abner Pastoll’s already secure reputation as a sure hand with character-driven genre cinema, following his Franco-English psychochiller Road Games (Fausse Route, 2014) and twisty chase short Getaway Driver (2017). This time around, working from a screenplay by Ronan Blaney, Pastoll merges the social realism of Ken Loach with a story of deliberate murder, accidental homicide and pre-meditated revenge, as recently widowed single mother Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger, Emelie, 2015) struggles to make ends meet, stay clean and survive on a crime-ridden Belfast estate where she is bringing up her two young children, Lucy and Ben – the latter still mute with trauma from witnessing the killing of his own father.
Sarah is the good woman of the title – although along the way she will break bad with a vengeance – and she is ‘hard to find’ only in the sense that she has not yet fully emerged. On a visit to the local police station, Sarah prefers to give her late husband’s name when asked for her own, as though she has no personal significance and lives entirely in his shadow. “I know you, you’ll just sit there and let them walk all over you,” observes her mother Alice (Jane Brennan). “If you want to get anywhere in this life you have to be a bit of a bitch.” Alice recognises Sarah’s softness – her hangdog compliance – and worries that she is easy prey for others. Her whole life shaped by events beyond her control, Sarah is a ruined shell – downtrodden, desperate, exhausted, and racked with doubt over her husband Stephen’s moral fibre.
It is clear from the film’s opening scene – a flash forward shows Sarah dazed and covered in blood – that A Good Woman Is Hard To Find is headed towards deadly conflict. As we follow Sarah in her daily routines of struggle, grief and loneliness, we also see young tearaway Tito (Andrew Simpson) in the background, strutting about the estate and keeping his eye on a pair of dealers. After violently ripping them off and fleeing with their supply, he forces his way into Sarah’s apartment and cuckoos it as his hideaway, leaving the threat of violence against mother and children to echo down the halls. The dealers’ angry, dangerous boss Leo (Edward Hogg) sends out an army to find Tito, and as the tension mounts, Sarah will fill in the missing details of her past and stride boldly into a new future, transformed from weakness to strength and from passivity to action.
Here, in a toxic male milieu of neglect, deprivation and hostility, it is loving mothers (and a local female politician glimpsed on a poster) who offer the best hope for a way out. In the rôle of Sarah, Bolger shows all the nuances of harried panic, even as her character gradually becomes a ‘steadfast’ schemer and fighter without ever going full kickass or undermining the film’s adherence to realism. Not that, amid all the hard grit, Pastoll’s film lacks stylisation: for its multi-coloured lighting scheme would be as much at home in a giallo or a neo-noir as in a naturalistic social drama; and Leo’s snarling menace marks him as (over the) top dog in an environment that is otherwise low-key. In this way we get the best of both worlds – real, grounded social issues packaged in the appealing artifice of genre. Pastoll expertly manages the mix, while regendering it in a manner that is utterly, vitally fresh, with the extraordinary Bolger – as much as a vibrator – his secret weapon against vicious patriarchy.
© Anton Bitel