Suffragette

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep

Director: Sarah Gavron

Writer: Abi Morgan


In this day and age when voting in the UK, as well as every other free country in the world, is an assumed and inalienable right, it’s easy to forget how fiercely (and recently) some people had to fight to win that right, especially women. It hasn’t even been a hundred years since Britain was a country where women strove, fought, sacrificed and even died for the right to vote. Voting is a vitally important right and is quite possibly the single most fundamental thing we all do as citizens of democracy which is why the Women’s Suffrage Movement is such an important and powerful story. The resolve and vigour they displayed and the hardships they endured serve as an inspiring example to us all. Suffragette attempts to depict and realise this struggle in a dramatic form by focusing on the story of a single woman in the middle of it all.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a working class wife and mother who gets drawn into the Women’s Suffrage Movement almost by accident when her kind and caring nature compels her to stand up for her ill-treated co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Through Violet, herself a determined suffragette, Maud falls into the company of such women’s rights activists as Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). As she learns more about this movement and comes to identify more with the cause, Maud becomes more and more active much to the detriment of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the local police officer Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the peaceful protests orchestrated by these women yield little results, the suffragette champion Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) entreats them all to resort to more extreme methods.

The decision to focus this story on a working class foot soldier caught up in the middle of this movement was a wise move on this film’s part. The sacrifices she makes and hardships she endures have greater resonances because she has more to lose than those that are better off. Maud depends on her work and her family to survive and would be destitute without either of them. As the struggle becomes greater and more unbearable, it becomes more difficult for Maud to decide whether this cause is bigger and more important than her own needs and those of her family. As well as the social and economic sufferings that Maud undergoes her perspective in the front lines of this movement provides a window into the other sufferings women endured. These women include the bold, working class Violet who finds herself powerless to oppose the sexual violence of her boss, the passionate, middle class Edith whose activism drives her towards extreme and unhealthy lengths, and the earnest, upper class Alice who despite her status feels powerless as she does not hold the right to control her own wealth and estates. The portrayal of the men also proves effective with Sonny serving as a working class man desperate to avoid any negative attention brought about by his wife and Steed as an ambivalent officer whose duty to the law trumps whatever personal feelings he might have.

Unfortunately there are a few issues I have with this film that I think prevent it from being the Selma of the women’s rights movement. One is that the film’s climax hinges on a real-life tragedy involving a character who doesn’t get nearly enough development. Maybe the lack of focus on this character was so she would stand as more of a symbol for all suffragettes by the film’s end, but I feel like the tragedy would have had a bigger impact on myself as well as the audience if we understood more about who this woman was, what she stood to lose and what the right to vote meant to her personally. Another issue I have, which admittedly is less to do with the film itself and more to do with its advertising, is Meryl Streep whose presence in the film is much smaller than the trailers or posters would have you believe. While she plays Emmeline Pankhurst well with all of the dignity and authority befitting her character, she’s only in the film for one scene. Her performance is essentially not so much a supporting role as it is a cameo. Even though I don’t have any particular problem with the performance itself or the character’s role in the overall story, I couldn’t help but feel misled.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement is an intense and harrowing tale and it takes a powerful film to depict it. Suffragette is not quite that film but it comes pretty damn close. The cruelties and oppression inflicted upon these women are depicted well and the entire cast succeeds admirably in portraying them. It’s only a want of a more refined focus and greater development that prevents this film from being the masterpiece it could’ve been. The film does end on an effective note as it lists the countries that now allow their women to vote and the years in which their suffrage was granted, some of those years being embarrassingly recent. Looking back it is astonishing how far our society has come in the last century in terms of women’s rights and feminism and, while there is still a way to go, this film serves as a reminder of the enduring bravery, strength and resolve of these women that lives on today and continues to inspire progress and change.

★★★★

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Far from the Madding Crowd

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Writer: David Nicholls


Reviewing an adaptation of a famous novel is always a bit weird, especially if it’s a classic. As someone who has never read Thomas Hardy’s novel and who has never watched any of its previous adaptations, I find myself in an uncertain position. On the one hand I was able to watch this film without any preconceived notions and therefore should be able to judge it based on its own merits. On the other hand reading the original source material would doubtless have provided me with an insight into what kind of film Vinterberg and Nicholls were trying to make. I’m not sure which would be worse; reviewing this film without enlightening myself on the actual themes and ideals it is trying to capture, or holding this film to a standard set by the source material rather than by its own standards. Is it fair for me to criticise Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby for missing the point of Fitzgerald’s novel even if not everyone in the audience will have necessarily read it? Am I a hypocrite if I say that the books don’t matter when reviewing something like the Harry Potter series but then say that they do when reviewing a film like Jane Eyre? Am I expected to familiarise myself with the themes, story and characters of Madame Bovary in order to develop an informed judgement of Sophie Barthes’ upcoming adaptation? I’m not sure if there is a simple answer to these questions. The question of the adaptation has always seemed like a grey area to me so I think I’ll have to proceed cautiously, share my own personal experience of this film, and hope that my ignorance does not prove to be a burden.

The protagonist of Far from the Madding Crowd is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), the headstrong farmer with a fierce will who prides herself on her self-reliance and independence. When she inherits a wealthy and prosperous farm, she shows absolutely no intention of settling down to enjoy a life of comfort and leisure. She instead intends to remain in the thick of it and run her farm herself. Over the course of the film she attracts the attention of three vastly different suitors who offer three vastly different lives for her. There is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the humble sheep farmer who promises her a quiet but fulfilling life; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the wealthy landowner who promises her a life of security and comfort; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the handsome sergeant who promises her a life of excitement and adventure. Bathsheba is a woman who has never dreamed of settling down and has no desire to be tamed by a husband. However the advances of these three men awaken feelings of passion and ambivalence within her as she is faced with the agonies of choice and of her own conflicted feelings.

Carey Mulligan was born to do period dramas and is on top form as the indomitable Bathsheba. She brings a lot of spirit to the role of a woman who defies the conventions of what a Victorian woman was expected to be. Bathsheba refuses to define or measure herself by other peoples’ standards, she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and she harbours a passionate and spirited nature that cannot be tempered. However her pride proves to be as much of a weakness as it is a strength as she finds herself unprepared for the effects that falling in love would prove to have on her will and judgement. Over the course of her romantic journey she does make mistakes and she does get hurt, but through it all she never allows these adversities to defeat her. Her character displays a strong sense of resilience and determination as she grows and learns more about herself and about the nature of love.

The three men of Bathsheba’s life are all portrayed impeccably by their actors and each one of them forms a compelling bond with her. Oak is a humble, soft-spoken man with a quiet dignity about him. He is the one out of the suitors who is most like Bathsheba and who understands her best, but he also understands that she is of a higher and nobler class than him and has resigned himself to the prospect of being nothing more than her faithful farmhand. Boldwood is a reclusive man who at first appears devoid of feeling. The beauty and kindness of Bathsheba awakens a romantic temperament that he had either lost or repressed long ago and he becomes determined to win her heart. Troy is a dashing, reckless soldier with a wild and enflamed passion that he directs towards Bathsheba. She finds herself attracted to his confidence and his daring nature and finds the danger he poses to be exhilarating. All three men bring out different sides of Bathsheba that conflict with one another as she attempts to make sense of her emotions.

The nature of love is discussed and explored by Bathsheba as she attempts to discover what exactly it is she wants. Falling in love was a prospect that she never intended to happen to her and she soon finds herself doubting and questioning her own judgement and feelings. What could easily have been a feeble tale of a woman discovering that she needs a man in her life to make her happy instead depicts a fascinating and emotional journey of romance, passion and self-discovery. As Bathsheba endures the pains, hardships and heartbreaks of love, she finds within herself the will to survive and persevere. I still don’t know whether that was the idea behind Hardy’s novel, but regardless it made for an enjoyable and emotional film with strong performances, beautiful music and stunning cinematography.

★★★★★