There’s a scene in the most recent season of House of Cards where our anti-heroine Claire Underwood changes the direction of the plot drastically in a split second by outing her college rapist, now a decorated military general, live on national television.
It’s a shocking moment for many reasons, but in the end it’s the ultimate revenge fantasy: a man celebrated for his leadership and valor outed as the despicable coward he really is.
When Angelina Jolie set out to retool the classic 1959 Disney animated version of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent, she probably had her young daughters in mind (it should be noted the film is sprinkled lovingly with callbacks to the original film, from the precise hair and makeup of Maleficent and the three fairy godmothers, to the lopsided pastel cake presented to Aurora on her 16th birthday). Still, it’s unclear if she meant to make what is ultimately a seething revenge fantasy of Tarantino-proportions.
Maleficent starts with a FernGully back-story: a verdant, magical kingdom (“The Moors”) lies in blatant opposition to the human kingdom nearby. The humans seek to conquer, tame, and ultimately destroy what they don’t understand: the beauty and magic of nature, an ordered society that keeps on ticking without the need of a monarchy.
What begins as a sweet and unlikely friendship between a young Maleficent and Stefan, a human interloper in this kingdom, is soon turned on its head once he seeks the crown. He must sacrifice his friendship to conquer that which has eluded the previous king: the default leader, Maleficent, who oversees the leaderless realm that eschews monarchistic rule, for as our narrator says of her, “she had never understood the greed and envy of men.”
Stefan’s betrayal of Maleficent is a post-rape scene as brutal and devastating as anything in an R-rated film. She awakens from a drugged slumber in pain, groggy and disoriented. Something about her body is changed; there has been a grave violation. Her wings are gone, shorn off by the man she loved and trusted to protect her, even in dreams. Her pain darkens everything in her path, and ultimately leaves her crippled with rage. Maleficent’s hatred is so strong, she bends the world around her to her will.
Jolie is flawless as the titular character (if anything was meant to be in 3-D, it’s Angelina’s cheekbones, even if they are enhanced with prosthetics). Sam Riley shines as Diaval, Maleficent’s raven familiar, and Elle Fanning is precocious though not particularly compelling as a teenage Aurora. Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) is a poor choice for an adult Stefan, a mad king who grows gradually more insane but fails to exude the sort of tormented pain that Jolie gives off with a flick of her finger.
In a moment where we’re focused on violence towards women, with national attention turned towards the #YesAllWomen campaign in the wake of a tragedy, Maleficent is eerily timed. It’s a fairy tale that’s centuries old, but the message is relevant today: this is what happens when a bright, unbridled spirit is met with the darkness of this world, a chaotic realm that would rather see that spirit shattered than left uncontrolled.