It has to be uncannily accidental synchronicity, but Disney’s Maleficent — emerging as it does after a week of national conversation about misogyny — is an unintentional #YesAllWomen fable. Men — or pretty much the only men we see — are weaklings, given to warmongering to impose their power. Women stand with nature, peace, paganism. The movie is a retelling of Disney’s earlier Sleeping Beauty, wherein the evil fairy Maleficent, offended at not having been invited to the christening of the king’s daughter, put a curse on her. In the new take, the offense runs much deeper and darker.
Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a powerful and benevolent faerie in the verdant, misty Moors, fending off occasional attacks from the bordering human kingdom with little trouble. Then one of the king’s subjects, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who’d been friends with Maleficent when they were both younger, drugs her, cuts her wings off, and brings them to the dying monarch as proof that he is worthy of assuming the throne. In essence, Stefan roofies and rapes her. The feminist screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), understands fable and myth and symbol. Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, so he mutilates her, denies her the release of flight. There’s nothing sexual in the assault, but then rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power; and Stefan’s act violently asserts the primacy of maleness (monarchy) over femaleness (the faerie realm).
Your kids may or may not pick up on most of that, but the subtext enriches the journey. Maleficent goes mad with rage, cursing Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, but then an interesting thing happens. Keeping watch over the girl (played as a teen by Elle Fanning), to make sure Aurora lives to see her sixteenth birthday when the curse will take effect, Maleficent grows fond of her. Some will call this needless softening of a great villain, but between this film and Frozen, Disney seems tired of “great villains” who reinforce old stereotypes. Elsa and now Maleficent have layers; they use their powers unwisely and are capable of regretting it. Stefan, too, has shadings of guilt and dread; he does despicable things, but behind it all is an orphaned boy who grew up in a barn. Stefan was driven to power because he came from utter powerlessness, and his betrayal of Maleficent brings him only misery and terror.
Director Robert Stromberg has won two Oscars for art direction, and predictably Maleficent, with cinematographer Dean Semler joining Stromberg behind the camera, has an eye for the beauty in darkness. Frequently, Angelina Jolie’s bone-white, angular face is the only thing visible in the shadows, looking on with malice or amusement or affection, glamorous as all hell. The sequences in which Maleficent slowly takes Aurora into her trust and her home have the delicate poignance of The Curse of the Cat People, in which former bad girl Simone Simon embraced little Ann Carter in the world of daydreams and butterflies. Maleficent has more in common, in fact, with that undervalued Val Lewton production than with the 1956 Sleeping Beauty, a bland reaffirmation of the status quo. Here, Maleficent is described as someone who is both hero and villain, and the only one, straddling those two moral worlds, who can set things right.
Angelina Jolie could’ve played an arch, cackling, two-dimensional gorgon, and it would’ve been delirious camp to launch a thousand drag queens, but what she does here cuts sharper, and when Maleficent pulls herself up to full majestic power during the climax it’s a real fist-pumping moment. Jolie purrs, snarls, sneers, comforts, sheds a single chic tear; it’s the kind of big performance actresses used to get to sink their teeth into, paradoxically, in Hollywood’s more sexist days. Camille Paglia will tell you that women in movies back then were goddesses, iconic, rococo and formidable. Jolie’s Maleficent is larger than life: larger than the movie she’s in, which is fastidiously crafted but can’t seem to contain what Maleficent represents — not merely woman scorned but nature affronted. Violence against women transgresses the psychic soil, makes a bloody mudbath out of the earth we commonly stand on. “There is evil in the world,” Maleficent tells Aurora, guiltily meaning herself, but also referencing a place in which a faerie can have her wings torn off and her assailant can seat himself on the throne. #YesAllWomen, indeed.