Shakespeare in Love director John Madden tackles edgier subject matter with Miss Sloane

As the first mainstream fiction film tackling the thorny issue of gun control in the United States, Miss Sloane – which opens in the UAE on November 15 – was always guaranteed to garner angry headlines, from both sides of the debate.

 John Madden at the Mina Al Salam hotel in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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As the first mainstream fiction film tackling the thorny issue of gun control in the United States, Miss Sloane – which opened the 13th Dubai International Film Festival on December 7 and goes on general release in the UAE on December 15 – was always likely to attract angry headlines from both sides of the debate.

So while it might be surprising that no one has tackled the topic dramatically before, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be an outsider that would take the bull by the horns.

British director John Madden is best known for films that tug at the heartstrings, including Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), seven-times Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love (1998) and, more recently, the light-hearted fun of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its 2015 sequel.

This 67-year-old "safe" industry figure seems an unlikely figure to helm Miss Sloane. A fictionalised account of the political battle to introduce mandatory background checks for buyers of firearms, the film is set in the murky, ego-driven engine-room of Washington DC's political lobbying industry.

“Anybody who stands outside that issue – coming from a different country – looks in and is just fascinated with how it can be as contentious as it is,” says Madden when we chatted during his visit to Diff.

“You see one atrocity after another. It’s a very confounding, confusing issue, which I was immediately interested in. I really couldn’t believe there hasn’t been a film dealing with that issue.”

The way Madden tells the story of the film’s genesis echoes the frantic, glossy, David Fincher-esque style of the edgy, engaging political thriller he has created.

Within minutes of picking up the script, Madden had cast the titular lead character in his head, and minutes after he finished reading it he contacted the actress whose performance dominates nearly every frame of the film: Jessica Chastain. Her steely portrayal of headstrong, heartless lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane ranks among the best Hollywood performances of the year.

"It just seemed a perfect fit," says Madden, who has been impressed by her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, the fictionalised account of the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, for which Chastain won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of a CIA analyst.

“There’s a sort of ferocity there, an obsessive, very driven quality – but she’s also got this fragility about her,” he says. “She just inhabits things. She’s very, very unusual – one of a handful, obviously.”

While the film is, rightfully, provoking debate, Madden is acutely aware of his position as an outsider in Hollywood. In person, he presents almost a caricature of quaint British restraint – our meeting begins with Madden exchanging the water he has been given with excessively politeness.

“That was very nice still water,” he says with characteristic humility. “But sparking would be just dandy.”

Denying that he set out to make a Michael Moore-style polemic, Madden argues that the film is as much about the “political process” and “gender politics” as gun control.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to come and wag my finger about an issue that does not directly affect me,” he says.

“It’s not a piece of agitprop. Of course, we know we’re going to be put into a ghetto by the other side, you absolutely get that.”

Audience scepticism is inevitably fuelled by the pronounced schism of a director coming off the back of safe, audience-pleasing films such as the Marigold Hotel movies, which are warm fuzzy ensemble comedies – the antithesis of Miss Sloane’s explosive politicism.

“I responded to material, so I don’t consider myself in a box, particularly,” he says. “I would consider myself a bedfellow of Stephen Frears or Danny Boyle or Roger Michell – it’s wherever the material is. I don’t feel myself not qualified to make a film like [Miss Sloane].

“There are certain things where I feel like, ‘This is not me, this is not my zone, I wouldn’t do it well’ – and this wasn’t one of those.”

Where this abrupt career left-turn will lead next remains to be seen, with Madden taking a break from filmmaking.

But one thing he seems fairly certain about is that – hankies at the ready Marigold Hotel fans – he is unlikely sign up for a third instalment.

“The whole idea of doing a franchise with people in that age range is too hilarious for words,” he laughs.

“I think a third film would probably take the film into a place that neither the audience nor the studio would want to go – so the answer to that is, probably not.”

Miss Sloane will be incinemas in the UAE from December 15.