No poverty of the soul

Kate Johnstone (Associate Editor for Culture) watches Nomadland.

It’s unexpected to be reviewing Nomadland for the summer edition of this magazine, devoted to the theme of ‘From Poverty to Flourishing’. The film’s premiere was at the Venice Film Festival in September 2020, with some subsequent limited American release. The pandemic, and the lack of cinemas in which to show it, suggested that this film was destined to rapidly fade away on a digital platform. Yet its extraordinary critical reception, culminating in an Oscar win for its director Cloe Zhao and (third) Best Actress award for Frances McDormand, means that Nomadland led the charge when cinemas reopened. It is undeniably a film worth the wait for a big screen viewing.

Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who decides to leave the economically bankrupt town in which she and her husband spent their productive years, and become a nomad, living in her RV and taking whatever seasonal or temporary work is available along the way. Described as a ‘docu-drama’, almost all of the people she meets are non-professional actors, playing themselves or slight variations. They’re all of Fern’s age, people (and especially women) in their 60s and 70s, who know how to take care of themselves, or where to go for help if not – metaphorically, and actually ‘looking after their shit’. McDormand is our ambassador to this world, and she is totally convincing, playing without vanity or self-pity.

The genius of the film is the way in which form and content are aligned. A film has a beginning, middle and end, just as our lives must. But in life we can only be sure of our beginning; the middle is an uncertain place, and the end remains unknown until we get there. This is the philosophy of the nomads whom Fern meets; they are travelling in the middle, embracing the uncertainty and without concern about the end. There’s a hugely moving speech by Bob Wells, a real-life anti-capitalist, where he articulates a devastating loss in his life, and the healing power of being able to say to people, instead of goodbye, that he will ‘see them down the road’. 

The cinematography is one of the reasons why it’s worth seeing this film in the cinema. This is America seen afresh (as perhaps only someone born elsewhere can see), a place of epic natural beauty and serenity, with vast skies and endless vistas. It is in some way a mediation on the healing power of nature, after a lifetime spent in factories or offices – although those are also represented, as Fern takes a regular Christmas gig at Amazon’s monster ‘fulfillment centre’ in Nevada. The film wears its critique of capitalism lightly. 

The poverty in the film is many faceted, and subtle. Fern does meet some people close to destitution, and no-one in these working class communities has much money. But there is the poverty determined by capitalism, compared with the poverty of the soul. On meeting an ex-pupil in a shop who offers her a bed, Fern explains that she’s ‘houseless, not homeless’. Instead, the camaraderie of her fellow nomads nourishes her, and the freedom to travel anywhere and to be self-sufficient is liberating. Fern does indeed flourish. It’s a masterful and humane film, which will linger in the mind. 

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