Ocean’s 8 film review: “entertainingly empowered”

Sandra Bullock and her co-conspirators steal the show as the heist-movie series gets an all-female makeover

Warners; JH

★★★

“Somewhere out there is an eight-year-old girl dreaming of being a criminal. Let’s do this for her,” Debbie Ocean tells her team, as they gear up for the big heist.

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Ocean’s 8 sees a gang of wily women go after a heavily guarded diamond necklace, just as the actresses playing them steal their way into one of the strongholds of male cinematic dominance: the criminal caper movie.

Elaborate heists are ten-a-penny on screen, nevertheless this all-female spin-off feels like it’s taking on the right target; Steven Soderbergh’s trio of Ocean’s films sidelined women to an often infuriating extent. As the men had a seemingly endless amount of fun – in a way that was more than a little bit smug – its female characters were spectators and pawns, aside from when Julia Roberts’s Tess became a reluctant participant in one of the most cringing in-jokes in movie history.

Soderbergh acts as producer here, while Gary Ross directs and pens the script with Olivia Milch. Given his close friendship with Soderbergh, Ross might not seem impartial enough to breathe fresh life into the project, but he has form helping women break free of conventional constraints; as the director of The Hunger Games he gave us an action heroine for the ages.

Sandra Bullock plays Debbie, sister of the Ocean’s trilogy’s Danny (played by George Clooney), and the film begins, just as the first instalment did, with its incarcerated protagonist getting out on parole. Debbie quickly reunites with her right-hand woman, Lou (Cate Blanchett), and the two go about assembling a crew for a spectacular diamond heist.

Joining them are Helena Bonham Carter’s scatty Irish fashion designer, Awkwafina’s pickpocket, Mindy Kaling’s jeweller, Sarah Paulson’s fence/suburban mom and Rihanna’s hacker. The plan is to persuade diva-like actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a $150 million, 6lb Cartier necklace to the Met Gala, where it will be spirited away without anyone suspecting a thing…

Ocean’s 8 emerges sufficiently from the previous films’ shadows by virtue of the inspired casting. Series cameos are fleeting and not necessarily from who you’d expect; the message is very much that these women are the stars of the show. Overall the air is substantially less self-satisfied than its predecessors’, the personalities are diverse and likeable, their charm is natural and unforced rather than spread on thick.

Bullock makes a steelier, edgier centre than Clooney and a more convincing crook. Blanchett inhabits the super-cool sidekick sans the ego of a double Oscar winner, and Bonham Carter turns her ditzy dial down, resulting in something rather sweet. Since the focus is on genuine camaraderie, the less experienced members of the cast don’t seem out of their depth.

The women’s antics are as ingenious as they are preposterous and the screenplay strikes many of the right feminism-fuelled notes. Explaining why they don’t need a male collaborator, Debbie remarks pointedly, “A ‘he’ gets noticed, a ‘her’ gets ignored. And, for once, we want to be ignored.” The backdrop of the Met Gala seems like a shameless excuse for star-gazing, and it is, yet setting the action against an annual event celebrating eye-catching women’s fashion is a good fit for a female-led story.

Perhaps the film coasts too heavily on the sheer novelty of watching women band together to steal stuff, failing to establish its own unique flavour, but it looks and feels the part without ever overegging it. And if the script could have done with a touch more sass and the direction a little more distinction, the cast is divine and the overall effect is entertainingly empowered.

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Ocean’s 8 is released in cinemas on Monday 18 June