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‘Magpie’ Review: Daisy Ridley Revolts in a Tight, Twisty Battle of the Sexes

In “Magpie,” revenge is served with a grim smile and dead eyes. In her role as Anette, a former publishing agent now trapped in a modernist glass box in the English countryside with a screaming baby and a useless husband, Daisy Ridley keeps her angular jawline clenched tight in a reflection of her character’s beleaguered state. Early on in this twisty, wicked little thriller, she puts her hand on a mirror and leans on it so hard it cracks. That part’s a bit on the nose, but there are surprises yet to unfold.

There are films where Anette would break under the pressure of living with a man who can’t be bothered to parent his own children, but “Magpie” isn’t one of them. Its composure is very posh and very British, like its characters and their world. Its sense of humor is similarly dry and dark, and much of it comes at the expense of Ben (Shazad Latif), the useless husband mentioned above.

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“Useless” isn’t a strong enough word for him, actually. He’s a lying, self-pitying, egotistical, unfaithful misogynist, not to mention the most annoying type of writer: one that never writes anything, but takes himself very seriously regardless. Hating him is one of this film’s most delicious pleasures, and Latif’s willingness to make a fool of himself is key to making the whole thing work.

Because Ben is also a fool, the kind who literally takes off running, arms pumping at his sides, at the chance to cheat on his wife with a hot Italian actress who’s shooting a movie near his home. Alicia (Matilda Lutz) meets Ben on the set of said film, a period drama in which Ben and Anette’s young daughter Matilda (Hiba Ahrmed) has booked a supporting role. It starts as a friendship, but escalates into flirty texts, which then evolve into talk of running away together. Preoccupied with his adulterous fantasies, Ben becomes even more distant and irritable than usual, which prompts Anette to start investigating.

The script for “Magpie” is lean and sharp, which is impressive given that this is scribe Tom Bateman’s first project as a writer. (He’s better known as an actor, and, it should be noted, as Ridley’s husband.) Director Sam Yates also primarily works in theater — up to this point, his movie work has all been filmed versions of stage plays — and he acquits himself admirably with a limited, steely color palette, tight editing, and an emphasis on the actors.

The credits for the film say that it was “based on an idea” by Ridley, which may provide a clue to the true engine of this project: While the men behind the camera handle their roles professionally, this is a female-driven picture. There’s nothing especially revelatory about the scenes where Anette sits in the country home that now feels more like a prison, wondering how her life got to the point where she’s changing diapers and fixing dinner while her husband is out using their daughter to hit on women. But her response to said feminine mystique is demented enough to make this a wild and satisfying ride.

“Magpie” premiered at SXSW the day after International Women’s Day, which is too bad, given that the last act of this film is a stellar example of the growing phenomenon of so-called “good for her” cinema, in which a woman who has taken entirely too much shit throughout the movie decides that she’s not going to take any more. Saying more would ruin a sequence that rides the line between camp and a genuine explosion of bottled-up rage — and puts the first real smile on Ridley’s face after 90 minutes of tight-lipped grimacing.

Grade: B

“Magpie” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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