Talking Movies

October 12, 2015

Suffragette

Carey Mulligan stars as a young suffragette in 1912, whose life falls apart as she becomes ever more militant in her fight for the vote.

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Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works long hours in an East End laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works there, delivering the freshly-laundered clothes. Their boss is a tyrant, but that’s the way of it in 1912. But when Maud is caught in the middle of a violent protest by Mrs Drayton (Lisa Dillon), and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) comes to work at the laundry, the door is opened to a new world. Maud finds herself testifying in front of Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of a campaign by Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) to convince Parliament that working women deserve the vote. Little does Alice know that her husband, Cabinet Minister Benedict Haughton (Samuel West), is simultaneously ordering Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to break the ring circling around chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). And Steed targets newcomer Maud…

‘The Time is Now’ proclaims Suffragette’s posters. What is the contemporary relevance? Pankhurst proclaims “We want to be lawmakers, not lawbreakers.” We also hear “We will not respect the law, if the law is not respectable.” Lincoln ignored the similar contradiction in his legalistic philosophy. He wanted to make slavery illegal, but if he doesn’t respect the existing law, despite wanting everyone else to respect his future law, then he’s guided not by law but a higher ethical imperative. So his opponents could claim a similar ethical imperative when not respecting his law. Suffragette’s politics are as muddled as expected from Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan. Maud’s petulant “They lied to us” is shot down by Gleeson’s “They didn’t lie. You were promised nothing, and you were given nothing.” Yet the opening scroll tells us 50 years proved peaceful campaigning was a waste. Does Morgan know how long Catholic Emancipation took? The eternity it took for the Chartists’ demands to be met? (And we’re still waiting on one, annual elections).

Gleeson’s Irish detective makes you realise that blowing up post boxes, smashing in random shop windows, GBH, and dynamiting the Chancellor’s summerhouse aren’t civil disobedience. These are outrages, which, Fenian or Anarchist, were a feature of the times. There’s a more interesting period-appropriate Conradian tale floated when Steed tries to recruit Maud as a double-agent, but this is too simplistic a film for that. Eduard Grau renders 1912’s East End grimy and occasionally dreamy in his grainy, close-in camerawork, and Mulligan and Gleeson are on fine form as the antagonists. The problem is the script. Meryl Streep appears for two scenes as Pankhurst, but Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron shies away from contrasting Pankhurst’s comfortable fugitive life with Maud losing everything when Sonny shuns her for fear of unemployment and further ostracising by their neighbours. The closing scroll proclaims that because of Pankhurst women of property over 30 got the vote, i.e. Pankhurst, not Maud. WWI might deserve that credit, but in either case Maud was merely an expendable pawn.

Suffragette’s final image; women marching at Emily Davison’s funeral as Maud narrates; is jaw-dropping for historical obliviousness. Less than 14 months later, millions of men would march to death.

2.5/5

November 27, 2009

Glorious 39

I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.

In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.

Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.

A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.

2/5

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