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Review: Polite Society

Nida Manzoor, the multi award-winning creator of hit sitcom We Are Lady Parts, invites us into a triumphant, one-two punch feature film debut. *****

Parisa Taghizadeh / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

The phrase ‘Polite Society’ is one that denotes pristine presentation, grand, manor-like houses, and all the lifted pinkies and inheritance tax you can possibly imagine. It’s a soft masquerade of upper-class making that parades a pageantry of a certain way of life. It’s Downton Abbey. It’s Conservative. It’s judgemental snobbery and…well, frankly, it’s something that feels extremely British. 

So when Nida Manzoor opens her feature debut with the words in vibrant yellow across the entire screen, only to follow them with Ritu Arya’s Lena in a slobbish wardrobe as she walks down the street, eating a rotisserie chicken like an apple, you know that what you’re about to witness is absolute subversion of just that. 

Parisa Taghizadeh / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

The film explores the trials and tribulations of Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a school age girl who years to be a professional stuntwoman much to the chagrin of her teachers and parents. She’s a feisty, dedicated teen who creates videos of her progress and sends rampant emails to her hero. However, when her sister, an art school dropout caught in the vice of existentialism, becomes engaged to an all too perfect man and retracts her dream of being an artist, Ria must put her skills to the test to save Lena…who doesn’t seem to want to saving at all. 

With martial arts training, all the tropes of an honest to god spy feature, and the help of her best friends Alba (Ella Bruccoleri) and Clara (Seraphina Beh), Ria’s dedication – though often misguided but still addictively inspired – and hopeful energy surges from the page to screen with a masterful THUNK!  The combined will of Priya Kansara and the evocative filmmaking of Nida Manzoor is a one-two punch experience of total action enjoyment. Polite Society is one of those rare films that beats with the perfect synchronicity of all hearts involved, where every actor and crew member was clearly having an absolute ball during production. The life and joy permeates each sequence and allows, when the story itself turns a touch dark, the film to say something important but without taking itself too seriously. 

Saima Khalid / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

And that’s why Polite Society is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, in a long time if I’m being perfectly honest. It has the charm of an instant sleepover cult-classic because while it’s lighthearted and downright hilarious, with quirky camerawork that Edgar Wright himself would be proud of, it also has a poignancy to its existence. Manzoor’s much acclaimed We Are Lady Parts was heralded for its presentation of the variety in the Pakistani-British Muslim female experience, and Polite Society is another example of that. Though the film itself may seem cartoonish in moments, it is never caricaturish. It’s like a comic-book style reflection of a part of Manzoor’s own community and though the villains become flagrant in their devilishness, the film never reduces its characters down to a Good vs Evil or White vs Black binary, instead it presents their ludicrousness and criticises them while wholly understanding the circumstances that manufactured them. 

This film is a stand-out bit of entertainment that I simply couldn’t recommend more. Manzoor’s place in the canon of great British filmmakers is made certain with Polite Society and, considering its a debut, I think that’s a pretty big achievement. 

Words: Beth Bennett

Polite Society is in UK cinemas now.