On Monday, the actress attended a Q&A panel at the New York Film Festival for Paul Dano's directorial debut Wildlife, in which she plays a mother and wife searching for her identity after her husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves home. Per IndieWire, one audience member criticised the film, and specifically Mulligan's character Jeannette, whom he called "completely reprehensible" and "unsympathetic."
Though the film opens on October 19 in select theatres, critics have already praised Mulligan's portrayal of a complicated woman who may not always be the best mother to her son, played by Ed Oxenbould. Variety's Owen Gleiberman stated that Mulligan "gives a bravura performance" and that she "makes Jeanette sexy but unstable, full of inchoate anger, the emotions leaking out of her like lava because she can’t hold them in anymore." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw praises her work as "one of the best roles and best performances of her career" and specifically compliments the material for "giving [Mulligan] a chance to display maturity, wit, savvy and the emotional battle scars of life."
Of course, everyone is entitled to a controversial opinion — even audience members at a film Q&A, who, all too often it seems, miss the "question" part in favour of sharing their own sentiments about the movie. However, Mulligan responded to the criticism thoughtfully, suggesting that perhaps it was our collective discomfort in seeing a woman behaving badly that made the particularly role stand out.
"We’re all too used to only seeing women behaving really well [in movies]," Mulligan said at the panel, per IndieWire. "When we see them out of control or struggling it doesn't ring true because of everything we’ve been brought up to understand that women are always perfect and can do anything. That’s an unrealistic expectation of a woman. Seeing real humanity on-screen can be really jarring from a female perspective."
Do we ever criticise characters like Bryan Cranston's Walter White, or Jon Hamm's Don Draper for being bad parents or husbands? More so, are these actors ever asked to explain why their characters behave so badly onscreen? You'll be hard pressed to find a Q&A where a male character is criticised for being too awful. (Ironically, it's Walter and Don's wives who tend to be called out for their perceived unlikeability.)
As for Mulligan, she's no stranger to tackling complicated, sometimes unlikeable women. Daisy in The Great Gatsby is flighty, fickle, and status-obsessed; Jenny in An Education gives up her Oxford dreams for a boy; Netflix series Collateral's Kip grapples with her own complicated past.
Forget "strong female character" — we need women onscreen who are messy, mean, or just simply human.
Don't expect Mulligan to apologise for Jeannette in Wildlife any time soon. She doesn't need to explain why women should be allowed to play people, too.