The first time we see Kristen Stewart as Sabina Wilson in Charlie’s Angels, she’s wearing a long, perfectly curled blonde wig, a sparkly mini-dress, and sky-high silver stilettos. Her expertly manicured nails are a shockingly bright pink, her toes a demure white. She’s in disguise, of course, playing a character designed to be underestimated by men so that she can complete her mission as a spy for the elite Townsend Agency.
Her mark, Johnny Smith (Crazy Rich Asians’ Chris Pang), is a rich sleaze, who, at this very moment, is trying to seduce her by explaining just how men are better at being in charge.
“In my line of work, it’s considered an advantage to be a woman,” she purrs. “If you’re beautiful, nothing else is expected of you. And if you’re not, you practically don’t exist.”
She’s talking about her work as an Angel, but Stewart could just as easily be referring to her own career in Hollywood. She came of age as an ingenue in The Twilight Saga, and dismissed as such by many critics who saw her as nothing more than a pretty face with only mild talent. In fact, the costume worn by Sabina is all the more jarring when you realise that could easily have been Stewart’s real-life look had she continued on the starlet conveyor belt. But she didn’t. Instead, she chose the relative anonymity of indie films, giving provocative, interesting and complex performances in movies like Clouds Of Sils Maria (which earned her a César Award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival), Personal Shopper, JT LeRoy and the upcoming Seberg. She cut her hair short, adopted a fierce and powerful personal style, and was open about her relationships with women despite being told it might harm her career prospects. She rebelled against the sexist high-heeled oppression of the Cannes Film Festival. She even directed her own short film, Come Swim, as part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology.
And now, a little more than a decade after she made her Bella Swan debut, she’s back as a star player in a studio blockbuster where her individuality and talent are finally celebrated, rather than feared or suppressed.
In this Charlie’s Angels universe, the Townsend Agency has expanded to a worldwide network of multiple “Angels,” supervised by multiple “Bosleys,” (Michael Strahan is a New York-based Bosley!) all funded by a mysterious and anonymous millionaire (it’s quaint they haven’t changed that to billionaire) named Charlie. When Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott), a systems engineer who blows the whistle on her company's irresponsible greenlighting of Calisto — a dangerous new technology that can effectively be weaponised to assassinate people without a trace — she triggers a chain of events that will require her to join Sabina and her reluctant colleague Jane (Ella Balinska) as the Angels battle corruption and bro-ey men.
Stewart’s role in Charlie’s Angels is unlike anything we’ve seen her do before. If Balinska is the badass, almost stoic member of trio put together by director Elizabeth Banks (who also plays their Bosley), and Scott the clueless newbie, then Stewart is the comic relief.
It’s a side of Stewart we haven’t seen in a while. She’s been quietly funny, even deadpan, in many of her performances, but never the class clown. In fact, her brand of comedy often read as sullenness if you weren’t quite paying close attention. But Stewart’s sense of humour is a quality that Banks has said she was eager for people to discover. “She’s really, really funny,” the director said in a press call earlier this year. “I think she lands as many jokes in this film as any comic actor working today. I think that will really surprise people.”
What’s refreshing about Sabina, however, is that like Stewart, she feels entirely herself, comfortable in her own skin, and as a result, ready to welcome others in. What’s more, she’s surprisingly weird for an action heroine, full of contradictions and quirks. She’s a Park Avenue heiress who’s seen the inside of a jail cell. She’s tough and capable, but gets distracted by cute dogs when she’s on a stakeout. She can launch a tracker from a horse galloping at full speed, but is in awe of her colleague’s book smarts, and not self-conscious about expressing it. She swaggers into scenes with a charisma that’s impossible to look away from. She’s an It Girl, but she’s approachable, sweet, and at times even vulnerable.
Partly, that’s down to Banks’ screenplay, which celebrates women in all their strength, weaknesses, and complexity, and imbues the film with a female gaze that allows the characters to be sexy without feeling like they’re there to be ogled. But it’s Stewart’s performance, her casual comedic timing and delivery, that really nails this role. It’s the confidence with which she throws in a line about having guns drawn at her wedding, and then quips “No, I was the better shot,” when her colleagues ask if she’s married; it’s the bravado of her “Mo’ money mo’ problems,” when Jane points out that Sabina is immensely rich after she’s launched into a monologue about growing up without any hope or prospects; it’s the combination of double take and sexy wink she gives any attractive woman in her line of sight. Sabina is out to seduce and get what she wants, and we, the audience, are powerless before her.
There’s also something exhilarating about seeing a performer who has worked so hard to reject the tropes of the ditzy Hollywood actress play into them to manipulate those men who believe they’re in control. At one point, Sabina stumbles into a hallway that an armed security guard tells her is restricted. “I just really have to pee!” she squeals, pressing her knees together and batting her eyelashes in his direction. It’s the kind of thing IRL Kristen Stewart has always tried to avoid, and because of that, it feels all the more subversive in this context.
The fashion Sabina wears when she’s on a mission is very different than what she wears for herself — a distinction that the 2000 version of Charlie’s Angels never made. Banks has put together a uniform of fashionable, sexy clothes that appeal to women, rather then men, tailored to the style of each of her three main cast. With her short, blonde faux-hawk, leather pants, and sneakers, Sabina’s street style echoes Stewart’s own.
In that same opening scene, Sabina starts seductively binding Johnny’s wrists with the linen curtain separating them from his security guards. As she loops and pulls and climbs around him like a graceful panther, neither he nor the two men behind him suspect that what she’s doing is anything other than sexual in nature. “Did you know it takes men an extra seven seconds to perceive a woman as a threat?” she asks, as it slowly dawns on her male counterparts that she might actually be up to something more than tantric.
Too late. Underestimate Stewart at your own risk. She’s lethal.
Charlie's Angels is in UK cinemas from 29th November