Saint Judy Review: From prosecution to persecution

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Leem Lubany stars as school teacher turned asylum seeker Asefa Ashwari in the heartfelt drama Saint Judy, in theatres across Australia and New Zealand from 20 August.. Photo: Erica Parise/ Saint Judy Productions, LLC
Leem Lubany stars as school teacher turned asylum seeker Asefa Ashwari in the heartfelt drama Saint Judy, in theatres across Australia and New Zealand from 20 August.. Photo: Erica Parise/ Saint Judy Productions, LLC

One wouldn’t consider a teacher leading her class to school to be offensive, but for a young woman in Afghanstan it would be grounds for a death sentence.

In the late 1970s, Asefa Ashwari was arrested and tortured by the Taliban for walking with her group of school girls in public without a male escort.

Managing to escape her family’s retribution, in what is known as honour killing, a battered and violated Asefa eventually found refuge in the United States.

But this wasn’t where Asefa’s remarkable story of survival ends.

Held at a detention centre in Los Angeles for over a year, her fight to attain asylum had only just begun and is depicted faithfully in the drama Saint Judy, set to be released in cinemas across Australia on 20 August.

Written by Dmitry Portnoy, a fellow refugee who escaped persecution from the then-Soviet Union, the powerful yet preachy biopic is centred around immigration lawyer Judy Wood (played by Michelle Monaghan).

Wanting her son to be closer to his dad, Judy leaves her successful position as a prosecutor to take up a job as an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles.

Her new money-conscious boss Ray Hernandez (played by Alfred Molina) expects Judy to learn the ropes by pumping out as many open-and-shut cases as possible.

But he soon realises that her interests lie with people’s problems rather than their pockets when she takes on the case of Asefa Ashwari (played by Leem Lubany).

Drugged up and set to be deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Asefa has lost all hope of attaining asylum as women weren’t considered a protected class.

Despite this reality, Judy uses her resourcefulness to get Asefa released and rehabilitated in order to learn the truth of why she fled her family.

Judy’s quest for justice not only shed light on Asefa’s persecution for being a woman seeking her rights, but it instigated change in US asylum laws which would save the lives of many other women.

Leem Lubany is a standout as the bold but battered school teacher whose trust in Judy brings her back from the brink of total despair.

Showcasing an impressive array of emotion, Lubany does well to capsulate Asefa’s pain and vunerability while portraying her transition to hope in an honest and believable manner.

Likewise, Michelle Monaghan and Alfred Molina succeed in their attempt to play their roles truthfully and realistically, but a lack of characterisation and clumsy story telling limit their potential to engage the audience.

Judging by the film’s title, Judy Wood is a person of virtue, integrity and high moral standing in all facets of her life.

Director Sean Hanish’s decision to highlight these attributes in her role as a lawyer and as a single mother is admired but it’s saturation throughout the entire film stops the audience from connecting deeply with Judy and at some points, such as when we see Judy drink from a ‘#1 mom’ mug, it becomes cringy.

Michelle Monaghan stars as Judy Wood in the inspiring biopic on the immigration lawyer’s fight to protect persecuted women. Photo: Erica Parise/ Saint Judy Productions, LLC
Michelle Monaghan stars as Judy Wood in the inspiring biopic on the immigration lawyer’s fight to protect persecuted women. Photo: Erica Parise/ Saint Judy Productions, LLC

Due to parallels in story and personalities, one can’t help draw comparisons between Saint Judy and Erin Brockovich, the fact-based drama starring Julia Roberts.

In that 2000 film, Erin’s flaws as a mother and employee were on full display as director Steven Soderbergh bet it would make her more relatable, trusting his audience with the ability to discern Erin’s virtues in her concern for those in need.

If Hanish took this on board, Judy’s good and honourable character would have been evident simply in her pursuit of justice for Asefa and countless others.

Another consequence of focusing too much on Judy’s flawless character is the way it effects how other personalities interact with her.

Characters don’t get a chance to grow or develop normally and for Alfred Molina’s Ray or Common’s Benjamin Adebayo, their acceptance of Judy’s perspective despite years of experience is as instantaneous as it is unrealistic.

Portnoy and Hanish do well to show the effect that Judy’s work has on her life as her son begins to be neglected and bills go unpaid.

And they don’t shy away from exposing the ill treatment and lack of support of asylum seekers in detention centres.

Overall, Saint Judy is an inspiring story of one person’s conviction in their fight for truth and justice and admirably shines light on the plight of persecuted women across the world.

The film is rated M for Mature themes and coarse language. Session times along with other relevant information can be found at https://www.saintjudymovie.com.au/