Dune: Part Two is all about the women

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With the arrival of Dune: Part Two in cinemas, we take a look at the powerful, complex women of Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious sequel. 

Spoilers for Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two here.

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two arrived in cinemas with a lot of expectations, most of them on Timothée Chalamet. He’s the leader of an impressive ensemble cast and his character, Paul Atreides, also morphs into a prophetic leader in the film. 

What might be surprising about Dune: Part Two is that it’s far more concerned with its women characters than Part One was. If we’re being honest, Part One was a bit of a sausage fest. A very handsomely crafted one, I’ll give it that, but it was all about very serious men saying very serious things while Hans Zimmer’s score boomed in the background (also very seriously). 

In Part One, Zendaya’s Chani was mostly just glimpsed in Paul’s dreams. With screentime of just minutes, she was an ethereal apparition, an object for Paul to pine after, but Chani truly becomes the heart of the sequel, as pointed out by Ryan Lambie in his positive review of the film. 

dune part two zendaya
Credit: Warner Bros.

But it’s not just Chani who is central to the success of Dune: Part Two. The film’s large ensemble cast has as many women as it does men, a refreshing change to how most Hollywood films are cast. 

Florence Pugh joins the gang in the role of Princess Irulan, the Emperor’s daughter, who is also trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit and who is often seen guiding her father, the most powerful man in the world of Dune. Irulan mostly operates in the sidelines in Part Two and she’ll most likely play a more active role in Dune Messiah, but she’s undoubtedly powerful. 

Rebecca Ferguson reprises her role as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica, who gains more power in Part Two after ingesting a magical blue potion which connects her with her unborn baby as well as every female descendant in her lineage. If Chani is the heart of the film, Jessica’s transformation into the Reverend Mother is the source of true horror.

Our narrative loyalty to Paul begins to falter as religious fanaticism takes over, but it’s the women who keep the story of Dune: Part Two alive and grounded. We often see Chalamet’s Paul through Chani’s eyes. Our understanding of him evolves alongside Chani’s; he starts off as an idealistic young man who could lead the Fremen to freedom, but develops into a troubling fundamentalist. Chani is fascinated and curious about Paul, but grows to be scared of the fanaticism he begins to inspire.

In most films, Chani could have easily been a simple love interest for Paul. Instead, she’s first and foremost a warrior, and her love for her people is what drives her. Zendaya portrays Chani as deeply frustrated and angry at how her people have been treated and that anger is constantly bubbling underneath the surface. It’s contrasted with her growing affection towards Paul, an outsider who’s supposedly their saviour. 

Women have throughout history been accused of being too emotional, which is apparently why we’re not suitable for positions of power in the real world. We can’t be CEOs because we cry too much. We can’t be trusted with huge projects or decisions because we’re constantly at the mercy of our hormones. 

But in Dune, it’s the men who are often blinded by their feelings. The more Paul begins to believe in his role as the Chosen One, the more emotional he becomes. The Fremen leader, Stilgar, played with compelling fervour by Javier Bardem, is completely unable to see anything but the prophecy. Austin Butler’s psychotic Feyd-Rautha is only interested in feeding his own violent tendencies and Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen is obsessed with power and control over spice production. 

dune part two rebecca ferguson
Credit: Warner Bros.

This isn’t to say that all of Dune’s women are angelic do-gooders. The Bene Gesserit are shown as cunning plotters who’ve expertly managed to manipulate everyone around them, with or without the use of The Voice. Léa Seydoux’s role is frustratingly small as Lady Margot Fenrig, but she further showcases the Bene Gesserit’s power and dominance over the men. As the story goes on, Jessica particularly develops into an increasingly unstable, but powerful being as the film wraps up. 

While Part Two on the surface is very much a story of Paul Atreides accepting and then being blinded by his destiny, Villeneuve’s film’s power stems from the complex, compelling women that surround him. It’s a huge step up from Part One’s more reductive stance on women – and a very welcome one.

Dune: Part Two is in cinemas now. 

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