Harriet Tubman was a towering figure in pre-Civil War America – an escaped slave who ferried others north to safety via the secret Underground Railroad. She scared the bejeezus out of slave owners, shook the racist foundations of the Deep South and ended up serving as a spy during the war. But try as it might to present her as a kind of pistol-toting Dirty Harriet, this clunky biopic doesn’t come close to doing her justice. Only the reliably brilliant Cynthia Erivo emerges with any real credit in a talismanic lead performance.
Raised as ‘Minty’ (Harriet was her freed name), Tubman’s spirituality and sense of mission – ‘I’ll be free or die!’ is her mantra – are stoked to a near-messianic blaze by the increasingly stellar London-born actor. Despite warnings never to ‘look a white man in the eye’ as she travels covertly through the slave-owning South, she tackles everything head-on. ESP-like premonitions help her pilot frightened groups through landscapes patrolled by slave hunters.
Backed up by a bombastic score, ‘Harriet’ is backboned by a hoary good-versus-evil rivalry. Joe Alwyn (‘The Favourite’) provides a cardboard-cutout villain. The fugitive scenes are briskly handled, though, even if ‘Harriet’ could use a few more of them. The film is at its best when waist-deep in creeks and hostile wilderness, tallying this remarkable woman’s bravery in whizzing bullets and barking dogs.