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By Sarah Ward
March 02, 2017
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By Sarah Ward
March 02, 2017
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One of the joys of watching Jessica Chastain on screen is watching an excellent actress at the top of her game. Another, and one that occurs again and again in Miss Sloane, is watching everyone else react to her presence. Whether she's hunting down terrorists in Zero Dark Thirty or playing a scheming sibling in Crimson Peak, no one sharing her scenes seems to know quite how to react — which is a testament to the kinds of roles the two-time Oscar-nominee chooses, as well as the way she plays them, rather than a comment on her co-stars. Ambitious, determined and daring to defy categorisation, the bulk of Chastain's characters simply demand attention. Ruthless lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane certainly does, as does the movie that shares her name.

"Lobbying is about foresight," Sloane tells the camera during the film's opening scene, with everything that follows demonstrating the accuracy of her assertion. Miss Sloane starts with a congressional committee, where she has been asked to explain her behaviour during a high-profile job, before jumping back to fill in the gaps. Three months earlier, Sloane worked for one of Washington D.C.'s top firms — until the gun lobby came calling, she put them in their place, and the other side wooed her to lead their cause. Even her new boss (Mark Strong) didn't expect her to do more than put up a spirited fight, but losing isn't something Sloane knows how to handle, particularly when she's finally working for a cause she cares about.

Her former colleagues (played by Sam Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others) swiftly turn nasty and combative. Her new co-workers, including the kindy and impassioned Esme (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), try to adjust to her calculating ways. Sloane herself, meanwhile, stands in the middle, providing not only a compelling centrepiece in a high stakes political battle, but a meaty example of the treatment that plagues strong women. She's a force to be reckoned with — exceptional at her job, capable of handling whatever comes her way, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed and thoroughly unconcerned about whether or not people like her. As a result, she's always a target. Arriving on screen so soon after America not only visibly rejected a vision of female leadership, but was quick to paint the prospect in highly unflattering terms, it's no wonder that Miss Sloane strikes a chord.

That applies equally to the film and to the character — though the latter outshines the former, thanks largely to Chastain. Still, as the dialogue flies thick and fast, Miss Sloane proves a sleek, taut and tense political thriller. The film represents something of a change of pace for director John Madden after helming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel; still, the veteran filmmaker proves more than up to the task. First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera also acquits himself well, spinning an engaging narrative about duplicity, deceit, corruption and control.

Of course, if you've ever watched a film or TV show about US politics, you've seen tales like this before. Proficient wheeler-and-dealers have weaved their way through shadowy landscapes on screen before, and painting the American capital as an ethical sinkhole is nothing new – as viewers of The West Wing, House of Cards, Scandal and Veep can all attest And yet, Miss Sloane is never less than involving, even when it feels a tad familiar. Plus, for the record, not everything plays out exactly as expected.

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