A few weeks I was in dire need of a feminist pick-me-up, so I dragged myself to theaters to take in Charlize Theron's new kick-ass spy thriller Atomic Blonde. Set in both the Eat & West sides of Berlin during the Cold War, Theron plays an undercover M16 agent, Lorraine Broughton, who is tasked with stealing back a secret list of double agents. If the idea of a tall blonde feminist badass super-spy kicking ass and taking down big burly men while wearing a mini-skirt and 6-inch-heels peaks your interest -- this movie is for you.
On first thought, one might suspect this film of over-sexualizing the lead to entice wider audiences (ahem, men) to a female-driven thriller, or maybe fostering an unbelievable action-driven plot (back to the fist fighting in skin-tight leather) -- but fortunately, and maybe surprisingly, Atomic Blonde did neither.
As Theron explained in this Vogue article, her wardrobe played a huge part in the characterization of Lorraine: "[B]ecause this movie doesn’t have a ton of dialogue or backstory—we don’t ever really explain who she is and where she comes from—Cindy put me in [outfits] that forced me to behave in a certain way." Not only was this a way to for Theron to express Lorraine's inner world though her outer dress, but it was also a way for her to differentiate Atomic Blonde from other male-dominated action thrillers. Her costume designer Cindy Evans was actually the first to suggest that she perform her action scenes while in her fabulous wardrobe. "She was like, 'You know what? We should do a fight scene in 6-inch heels.' And I was like, 'What?' And she was like, 'Yeah, because Bond could never do it—so you have to,' and I was just like, 'Fuck.'"
One of my favorite aspects of this film was how honest it was when it came to the physicality necessary for Theron to play this role, and the toll it would take on the character. Theron trained for months before filming (often alongside Keanu Reeves who was training for a different film at the same gym), and performed almost of all of her own stunts. Theron as producer, along with director David Leitch, was not only dedicated to the authenticity of her fight scenes, but also was adamant about showing visually the effect that these brawls would have on a woman's body.
I love this aspect of the film because it allows you to witness Lorraine as a the badass elite-level spy that she is, but also see her in her most vulnerable state. She may take down robust Russian spies in a trenchcoat and garter belt, but she doesn't come out of it looking fresh as a daisy, that's for sure. When she gets punched, she bruises. When she gets cut, she bleeds. The neon-meets-noir feel of the movie adds to this reality, by implying emotional wounds that match her physical ones.
The cinematography in Atomic Blonde was beautiful -- some scenes so dark and dangerous that you were convinced Theron was the baddest Femme Fatale there ever was, and other's so neon you could feel the mixed vibrations of desperation and reckless hope from your seat in the theater. The wardrobe, mise-en-scene, and soundtrack all worked together to invoke what once "only belonged to ’80s Berlin and David Bowie." In fact, Bowie in voice and spirit was a large part of the film, according to Theron: "[W]e initially went to David Bowie for one of the roles in the film. We really wanted him to be in the movie but unfortunately, he passed on the role, and then he passed away while we were making the film. We were always going to have a bunch of Bowie songs in it; he was just such a part of the conversation in making this film."
If Atomic Blonde was hoping to electrify a sense of nostalgia in their audience while simultaneously making you want to buy a pair of thigh high boots and take up jiu jitsu, they succeeded.
Atomic Blonde is based on a graphic novel The Coldest City (written by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, 2015) that was brought to Theron's production company, Denver & Delilah Productions. Explained in this Variety article, she was given the then-unpublished manuscript, which became a passion project for Theron that she ended up spending 5 years working on and felt very strongly about producing. A piece of the story that made it into the film, that never existed in the novel, was Lorraine's tryst with French spy Delphine Lasalle, played by Sofia Boutella.
Rather than hiding their sexual relationship, the two are scene very openly together, in a way that managed to be sexy but somehow not come off as a tired plot device. Neither did it seem to be for the sole benefit of male viewers. Theron's opinion is clear in her interview with Variety: "[T]he sex scenes are right out of the 007 playbook, although Theron rolls her eyes at the comparison. “James Bond doesn’t have such hot you-know-what,” she says. “I loved that we didn’t hide under the sheets.”
The director of the film, David Leitch, also gave his interpretation of the relationship to EW, explaining how it's used to show how Lorraine is able to find pockets of connection in the midst of an extremely trying job that hinges on secrecy and obscured identity. He says: "It was more about if you are a spy you will do whatever it takes to get information. Everything is about survival and getting the mission done. And when you are a character like Lorraine, she will find her intimacies and her friendships in small doses, with anyone she can." This relationship is not a fetishized lesbian encounter or superficial eye candy for viewers, but rather further development of Theron's character.
Overall, I found Atomic Blonde to be both a powerful and an empowering film. It fulfilled all of my most adrenaline-pumping expectations of a spy thriller, while also leaving me with the pure joy that comes from watching women kick ass on screen. Yeah, it may have been a few weeks now since this film left theaters, but do yourself a favor and go get it. A must-see in my book.
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