Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Suffragette

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette" takes the fairly typical approach that movies about historic moments often do - placing a fictional character (played by Carey Mulligan) at the center of actual events and focusing on her story - and the picture occasionally gives the impression of one out to earn Academy Awards. That being said, it's a fairly rousing film with a story that will provoke righteous anger from anyone who believes in justice for all.

In the film, Mulligan's Maud Watts works in a factory in 1912 England sewing shirts in fairly lousy conditions and lives with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son. One day, she spots a fellow worker named Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) among a crowd of women throwing stones through department store windows and calling for women's right to vote and is intrigued.

Slowly but surely, Maud finds herself participating in actions with the women's suffragette movement, doing everything from taking part in marches to planting explosives in mailboxes. Just as the movement is represented by Maud's character, the opposition is depicted in the personage of Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a steely policeman who insists on the rule of law at all times and tells Maud and her fellow suffragettes that the world does not care about women's rights. He stands by as policeman punch women in the stomachs and approves when husbands beat up their wives for participating in marches and the like.

Most of the other male characters aren't much better, including the legislators who listen to testimony from women on their working conditions and still reject their right to vote and Whishaw's husband, who not only kicks Maud out of their home, but then - in a scene that might be pushing the boundaries of melodrama a little much - puts their son up for adoption after he determines he doesn't want to take care of him.

On Maud's side, there is some great acting talent. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a doctor who allows her apothecary to be the meeting place for suffragette meetings. Her supportive husband (Finbar Lynch) is the only likable character within several miles. And, of course, Meryl Streep pops up in one scene as Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement, who gives a rousing speech from a balcony.

So, even if "Suffragette" follows a standard approach to historical storytelling, the power of its story works all the same. And Mulligan, who I've long admired, brings the necessary gravitas to her character, whose suffering falls just shy of a heroine in a Lars Von Trier movie. And Gavron and cinematographer Eduard Grau bring the mucky, gloomy look of early 20th century England to life.

Gavron previously directed "Brick Lane," the adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, which also portrayed a strong woman attempting to make a life in England during a distant time period (in that case, the 1980s). There have been calls from many quarters during the past year or so for more female representation in Hollywood, especially behind the camera. So far, only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won Best Director and very few others have even been nominated.

The film culminates with a scroll of the years when women were given the right to vote in countries around the world, including some triumphs (England, 1918) and some late to the game (Saudi Arabia has promised that women will be able to vote in 2015 - yes, 2015!). The film suggests there's much more to be done - and that includes more movies about women that are made by women.

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