Mrs America: Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne light up the screen

TV review: This dramatisation of US equal-rights battles features megawatt performances

Mrs America features a number of steamroller performances, led by the quietly smouldering Cate Blanchett. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos

Mrs America features a number of steamroller performances, led by the quietly smouldering Cate Blanchett. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos

 

Cate Blanchett has portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, a whip-snapping Nazi with a killer fringe in an Indiana Jones film, and Galadriel, Queen of the Noldor and fairest Elf in Middle Earth. In other words, she has range.

Her latest role may be her most fantastical yet. In the tightly wound yet charming and occasionally effervescent Mrs America (BBC Two, Wednesday) she plays Phyllis Schlafly, the American conservative activist of the early 1970s.

Schlafly was a sort of all-American Mary Whitehouse. A right-wing lobbyist and lawyer, she campaigned against the United States’ equal-rights amendment, which was intended to make gender discrimination illegal.

Seldom has the chintzy essence of the 1970s been conjured so deliciously

Putting equal rights on the statute books would, she warned, disadvantage housewives and force women into the military (Vietnam was still rumbling on). It’s a pressure-cooker turn by Blanchett, who imagines Schlafly as a powerhouse of sharp smiles and weaponised glares.

She also pokes and prods the contradictions of a woman who elbowed her way past the sexism of her era in order to advance her cause. Her cause being essentially that women should welcome rather than rebel against gender prejudices.

Schlafly’s nemesis, both here and in reality, is the feminist Gloria Steinem, who is brought to life by Rose Byrne as a sardonic whirlwind in bug-eyed 1970s spectacles.

The feminist Gloria Steinem is brought to life excellently by Australian actress Rose Byrne. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos
The feminist Gloria Steinem is brought to life excellently by Australian actor Rose Byrne. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos

Both stars light up the screen and bring A-lister heft. Megawatt performances are similarly delivered by Uzo Aduba, as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman candidate to seek the presidency (she was defeated in the Democratic primaries by George McGovern), Elizabeth Banks as the Republican feminist Jill Ruckelshaus and John Slattery as Schlafly’s loadsamoney husband.

Slattery was one of the best things in Mad Men, and there are echoes of that series in the obsessive, if not fetishistic, period detailing in Mrs America. Naff soft furnishings, collars to take your eye out, brown-on-brown colour schemes: seldom has the chintzy essence of the 1970s been conjured so deliciously.

But it’s the present-day resonances that land most forcefully. With the United States’ culture wars fanned to a wildfire under Donald Trump, Mrs America argues that there is nothing new under the sun – not even arguments about gender, diversity and representation.

It’s the present-day resonances in Mrs America that land most forcefully, arguing that there is nothing new under the sun – not even arguments about gender, diversity and representation. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos
Uzo Aduba, as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman candidate to seek the presidency. It’s the present-day resonances in Mrs America that land most forcefully. Photographer: Sabrina Lantos

The series’ show-runner, Dahvi Waller, takes care, however, to avoid preachiness and both humanises the conservatives and highlights the vanity and occasional cruelty of heroines on the liberal side. It’s even possible to ignore the politics and enjoy Mrs America simply as a drama about strong women with clashing ideals.

That’s a testament to peerless writing and steamroller performances, led by the quietly smouldering Blanchett.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.