The Women of Dune

By Joan Amenn

**Caution: Spoilers, obviously**

With “Dune: Part 2” officially announced and Hans Zimmer declaring he has more music left inside him (never doubted it for a minute), now would be a good time to take a deeper look at the women characters of the first film who represent the greatest strengths and weaknesses of “Dune: Part 1” (2021).

As Lady Jessica, Rebecca Ferguson is perfection. As disciplined, resourceful, and shrewd as she is, Ferguson does not portray her as some kind of futuristic superhero. Her love for Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs) is what makes the Greek tragedy of his betrayal so poignant and sets the rest of the plot of the story in motion. Jessica is the center of this latest adaptation of the book to film and rightfully so. However, her loss of her love and the life she knew with him barely registers on the screen. For example, Jessica’s fateful conversation with Dr. Yueh has been edited out of the final cut. This is a sad loss of an opportunity to build up the emotional climax of the scenes that follow and would make Ferguson’s later confrontation with Paul (Timothy Chalamet) in the tent even more heartbreaking. As it is, the tent scene compresses the most emotion the film shows in over two and a half hours in an all too brief six minutes, more or less. (Yes, I timed it.)

Jessica is the center of this latest adaptation of the book to film and rightfully so.

As Chani, Zendaya speaks an opening narration for the film which was a wise choice for setting the tone. Sadly, she is not given much else to do but to pose gracefully on sand dunes and gaze over her shoulder. This is not totally director Denis Villeneuve’s fault, since Chani does not really appear until the second half of the book. By making her a reoccurring vision for Paul, he injects her into the story earlier than she actually is but this gives her character a somewhat static and flat quality that the actress can’t quite shake out of once she finally has interaction with the rest of the cast. Her scenes with Paul lack the chemistry of that would foretell their later relationship.

At one point in the film, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Manheim (Charlotte Rampling) addresses an alien spider and it is obvious that it takes one to know one. She is a member of the religious order of the Bene Gesserit who are proponents of eugenics, casual murderers when they deem the life they are taking is more “animal” than human and traffic in young girls, selling them as “concubines” to various royal houses. It is in this way that Jessica comes to House Atreides while still a teenager and why Duke Leto never marries her. This is not mentioned in the film and Rampling is wasted in what should be a role that matches the strength of Ferguson’s performance as Jessica. Their brief scenes together do not give enough of a sense of their past history that makes her refusal to come to the aid of Duke Leto all the more devastating to her former pupil.

At one point in the film, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Manheim (Charlotte Rampling) addresses an alien spider and it is obvious that it takes one to know one.

Dr. Liet Kynes is a man in the book and was previously played by the late Max Von Sydow in David Lynch’s adaptation in 1984. However, Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Kynes as a politically savvy operative for the Emperor of the Imperium who keeps her own agenda close to her stilsuited vest. She adds an appealing sense of warmth to the role but there is a missed opportunity to have her death have meaning by not revealing she is the parent of Chani. In the book, it is their mutual loss and grief that first bridges the cultural divide between her and Paul. Rather than end Part 1 with Chani announcing, “This is just the beginning,” it would have been more compelling to see the pair begin to bond over their common experiences, even as Jessica begins to note this with increasing disapproval.

“Dune: Part 1” is staggeringly beautiful and immersive but ultimately seems almost as dry as the sands of Arrakis.

“Dune: Part 1” is staggeringly beautiful and immersive but ultimately seems almost as dry as the sands of Arrakis. Villeneuve has acknowledged that his sequel will be more action driven and one can only hope for a more emotionally engaging story as well.

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