Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, Cannes review – Fury Road prequel is emotional, witty and filled with purposeful savagery

The fifth Mad Max movie, which has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, arrives on screen without one seemingly vital ingredient – Max himself. But no matter – this is a film made with purposeful savagery, and with considerable wit and lyricism, too. It has the concentrated intensity of 2015’s Fury Road, to which it is a prequel, and yet it unfolds across a far broader canvas. This is the origin story of that film’s female protagonist Furiosa (played there by Charlize Theron), taking her from early childhood to her emergence as a warrior.

We are right back in the hellish din of the “wasteland”, where humans exist in a “half life” and engage in a desperate battle for survival. They roam the desert in their souped-up trucks and on motorbikes, wearing skull helmets and glorified bondage gear. We meet Furiosa as a youngster, played by actor Alyla Browne – half of the film has elapsed before we catch our first glimpse of its star, Anya Taylor-Joy.

Furiosa is from “a place of abundance”, an Edenic community up in the hills and far removed from the dirt and squalor of the desert below. The young girl is kidnapped by whip-cracking thugs who spirit her away to a camp run by the cunning and sadistic warlord Dementus, played impressively by Chris Hemsworth. Those used to the Australian actor playing likeable Marvel heroes will be surprised by his performance here. What makes him such a chilling and unsettling presence is his seeming amiability – the way he switches on a dime from easy-going charm to psychotic anger.

The first half of the movie chronicles Furiosa’s experiences after she is kidnapped and ends up in servitude to Dementus’s arch-rival, Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), Fury Road’s grotesque, silver-haired tyrant who wears a mask and tubing over his mouth. A time-jump introduces us to Taylor-Joy’s older Furiosa, a warrior outwardly loyal to her captors but eager to return home. An assignment to ride shotgun with the legendary war-rig driver Praetorian Jack (a cast-against-type Tom Burke, nicely underplaying it all) eventually provides an opportunity for escape.

Furiosa is divided into chapters. At various junctures, we’ll be whisked months or even years into the future, but the storytelling never feels choppy. There is always a new chase or fight sequence to keep the audience’s attention. Director George Miller combines speed, grace and explosive violence, emulating Sam Peckinpah westerns and even, at times, the work of Charles Dickens – Furiosa is a bit like a young Artful Dodger, using her wits and courage to stay alive.

Dialogue is kept to a minimum. But even in an action role almost entirely bereft of quieter moments, Taylor-Joy is still able to convey plenty about Furiosa’s raw inner emotions. Her eyes, captured in extreme close-up throughout, are endlessly expressive.

Furiosa reportedly cost around $170m (£134m) to produce, and it looks it, Miller unleashing sheer carnage at every turn. The wonder here, though, is that a film with so many bells and whistles also bears such an emotional kick. “My childhood, my mother, I want them back,” Furiosa bellows at one stage, in a rare moment of speech. This is a movie that turns out to be as much about yearning as it is about death and destruction.

Dir: George Miller. Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke, Alyla Browne, Lachy Hulme. 15, 148 mins

‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is in cinemas from 24 May