Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sacrifice & caring: Sarah Gavron/Abi Morgan's bone-deep feminist history, SUFFRAGETTE

Maud Watts, one of the drab but determined protagonists of the new film, SUFFRAGETTE, doesn't have much to show for her life: a poorly-paid job in a laundry, a semi-caring husband, and a child she adores. That she will lose all of this, and that the loss will be of her own doing because she is attempting to bring fairness and justice to herself and to the women of her day (the film is set in the early 1900s) brings to mind a word we've seldom heard of late and seen put into action even less. That word is sacrifice, and although the film, as best I can recall, never uses this term, the act itself is everywhere to be seen.

As written by Abi Morgan (The Invisible Woman), shown at right, and directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), shown below, this is bone-deep and not-at-all-pretty feminist history. For starters, the two filmmakers do not use their "suffragettes" -- the British women who worked tirelessly to help gain women the right to vote --as we usually see them: figures meant for mostly comic (Hysteria) or romantic (Parade's End) purposes. Gavron and Morgan treat their suffragettes seriously; consequently, so do we.

Everything about this film --except the great energy
and specificity of its performances -- is somber and subdued. With only a couple of exceptions, the filmmakers avoid outright melodrama in favor of low-key but often devastating incident. One of these, perhaps the most devastating, comes as protesting women are beaten -- and badly -- by the police. As a director, Ms Gavron manages to let us feel the full force of this beating without in any way overdoing things or reveling in the violence. It's a remark-able scene. But then, so are so many others.

The filmmakers and their casting director, Fiona Weir, have done a superlative job of finding the right actors and then letting them do their stuff. The result is one of the finest films of the year, and one that, though it makes few concessions to the current need for feel-good-above-all, I suspect will be remembered come awards time.

In the leading role, that pert-but-deep actress Carey Mulligan (above with Ben Whishaw, who plays her husband), again does a bang-up job of drawing us in and making us understand her character's sometimes awful choices. As her friend and the woman who brings her into the movement, Anne-Marie Duff (below, left), as she often does, all but steals the movie with her wide-open, compelling eyes and great spirit.

Also major in the cast are Helena Bonham Carter (below, right) as one of the longtime suffragettes who helps train and strengthen the newcomers, and Natalie Press (My Summer of Love), below, left, as the girl who gives it her all.

Ah, yes: What about Meryl Streep? She's here, all right, below, in a very small role as the leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. Yet via her one short scene it becomes easy to understand both how Pankhurst was able to inspire her followers, and how Ms Streep is so adept at bringing whatever character she attempts to full-blown life.

In the opposition (and, yes, that would be us men), Brendan Gleeson, below, scores as the undercover policeman who arrests and otherwise natters the ladies without much success. Yet, so truthful to its time and to the situation at hand is the film, that I doubt many men who are still able to think and feel will come away from the film unmoved.

The gains made by women over the past century and a half seem to have caused a backlash, particularly among fundamentalist men. The title crawl that ends the film, just before the final credits roll, is eye-opening indeed. It lists the year in which various countries at last allowed their women the vote. It will have you muttering, "What? No!" time and again. Suffragette, as you might have already gathered, is a must-see movie.

From Focus Features and running 106 minutes, while continuing its run in New York and elsewhere, opens all over South Florida this Friday, November 6.

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