Monday 28 December 2015

Suffragette (2015) - Movie Review

The plot: After a chance encounter, laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes caught up in the suffragette movement lead by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Long since tired of the prejudicial behaviour she and the rest of the women in London have suffered from, Maud assists fellow suffragettes Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) so that they may secure the rights they so badly deserve.

This is easily the best performance I’ve ever seen from Carey Mulligan, who nails strength and tragedy like very few before her. Bonham Carter will hopefully be able to remove the Burton-induced prejudice her acting regularly gets with this one, as her portrayal of the passionate and frequently radical Edith is powerful that nearly match Mulligan in their scenes together. Streep, despite what the advertising may suggest, only appears in one scene which is that seen in the trailers. That said, testament to the woman’s abilities as, in the single speech she gives, she exudes this air and poise of a woman that thousands would rally under and is genuinely inspiring in her performance. Anne-Marie Duff as Violet brings some proud mischief to the table, while also proving powerful in a key scene between her and Mulligan. Outside of our largely female cast, we have Ben Whishaw who, if he isn’t playing the straight-up good guy, usually plays characters with some sympathetic edge to them. Here, his portrayal of Sonny manages to keep on the relatively understandable side of the era’s sexism, until he reaches the point of no return in his final scene. Brendan Gleeson delivers another great performance as Steed, showing a loyalty to the law more than a real loyalty to any prejudices and selling it well.

With the film’s text-on-black-screen prologue and epilogue, there was a serious worry that this was going to be nothing more than a mouthpiece film. It doesn’t matter how important the message is, because if it isn’t delivered well than a film can still fail regardless. However, what makes this film work as well as it does is that it actually takes the time to question what the suffragettes are doing in order to secure their rights. We see both approaches that were being taken, with the peaceful protestors alongside the more militant bomb-makers, and the film isn’t shy to point out the problems with both of them. The pacifists are being largely ignored, but at the same time the more violent ones keep running the risk of injuring the very people they’re trying to liberate. It doesn’t immediately portray either as being wrong or right; just as two different paths being taken to get the rights that they deserve.

This is aided by how uncompromising the film is in portraying how poorly women were treated at the time. From the sexual abuse to the physical abuse to how they were treated in prisons, which particularly turns stomachs when you realize that these methods are still being used, it is harrowing to witness how these people are treated. And yet, while these horrific acts are taking place, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed in any way. Because these women aren’t being shown as altruistic saints, but rather as human beings that breathe and bleed, not only is the brutality more effective but it doesn’t enter into the realms of exploitation that could’ve harmed the film’s core message. It also doesn’t shy away from the more emotionally damaging scenes as well, particularly when showing the sacrifices that these women are making to do what they truly believe to be the just thing to do. Watching Maud try to keep in contact with her son after being thrown out of the house is at once heart-warming and, considering how that sub-plot ends, heart-breaking to the fullest extent.

I find myself once again having to talk about the camera work, and it is for reasons other than what I would like to be talking about. After the terrific job DOP Eduard Grau did with The Gift, where he managed to make a regular house at midday look as appealing as a concentration camp, I genuinely surprised how haphazard the cinematography is here. It is largely ruled over by a lot of unnecessary shaky-cam that, especially during the more dramatically intense moments, ends up distracting heavily from the events on-screen. Given the scenes it is primarily used in like the riots and mass protests, Grau was probably aiming for a feeling of chaos and disorientation to make the brutality hit harder. Unfortunately, since the hand-held camera not only makes some parts difficult to make out but also reaches the point of unintentional hilarity, like when during Pankhurst’s speech and the camera just wobbles for no foreseeable reason when focusing on her, that effect isn’t reached.

When Maud is brought before the court to testify on behalf of the suffragettes, she mentions how she never thought that they would get the vote and thus wouldn’t even know what to do with it if she got it. At first, this honestly seems kind of stupid and probably the worst foot forward you could take to convince someone else to change a law. But then, as the film progresses, that moment starts to make more sense. Between Maud, Edith and Pankhurst herself, what is being marketed as the core cast represents three generations of women whom have all suffered at the hands of Britain’s sexist government. Their fight is a very long and arduous one that existed long before them and, unfortunately, will exist long after them as well. As we watch the actions that both sides of the suffragette movement are taking, it sinks in that they aren’t doing any of this for themselves; they are doing it for the next generation that comes along. This notion even makes the text ending work, as it highlights how shockingly recent the right to vote has been granted in certain countries, with some only happening within the last year or two. By portraying the events of the film not as a definitive victory, but as a pivotal moment in a long-running campaign for equal rights, it avoids the pitfall of trying to encapsulate the entirety of the subject and instead highlight an important aspect of it. As a result, its message and the method by which it’s delivered works astoundingly well.

All in all, this is an amazingly well-done portrayal of a particularly tragic part of human history. The acting is outstanding, with Carey Mulligan giving a career-highlight performance, the camera work can be distracting but still be effective in places, and the script treats the suffragette movement is the right amount of importance and questioning to show how vital their role was, while not deifying any of them at any point and ruining the film’s intent. Without question, this gets a recommendation as one of the most emotionally affecting films of the year.

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