And now for a franchise movie with a difference. I have an unfortunate tendency to be cynical and were I to give this part of myself free rein, I would probably end up saying things like 'the first whiff of awards season is in the air, for they have started to release classy and serious films about how horrible everything was in the past'. There's nothing like misery in painstakingly researched frocks to grab the attention of the average gong panel.
Occasioning this sort of disreputable thinking is Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which concerns itself with the various travails of the members of the women's suffrage movement in the Edwardian era. While various historical figures make an appearance in the course of the film, the audience's point of identification is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother, and factory worker who finds herself drawn into the orbit of the suffragettes almost by accident. When the government is perceived to have reneged on a promise to extend voting rights to women, the struggle turns both vicious and violent, and – inevitably – Maud has to decide whether she's serious about her commitment to the cause. Needless to say, this comes at no small cost to her, but it seems that sacrifice is part of the process...
Now, as a regular UK cinemagoer it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me when people start applauding at the end of a film – it's usually a sign that we've just watched something fairly exceptional. Suffragette got a round of applause at the (very busy) screening I attended, and I have to say I was slightly surprised. It may just be that this particular cinema is very popular with politically-engaged types and they were just showing support for the film's theme and message, which is unexceptionable, rather than its execution, which is not, if we're honest, particularly distinctive.
Make no mistake, this is a movie which has all the usual British costume drama virtues in spades – Edwardian London is beautifully staged, and there is a fine cast, mostly made up of the usual suspects for this kind of film – Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Romola Garai, and so on. It kind of goes against the grain of the film to say this, but I thought the most impressive performance was from Brendan Gleeson, playing the tough cop assigned to shutting down the suffragettes. Gleeson manages to take this character and make him, if not actually sympathetic, then at least a recognisable human being, unlike every other male character (even Ben Whishaw – at the start of a busy month for him – comes across as rather contemptible by the time the film ends). But then I am always partial to a bit of Brendan Gleeson.
Prominent though she is in the publicity material (presumably to assist with marketing this movie in the States), Meryl Streep is not actually in the movie that much, contributing little more than a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst herself. It's by no means a bad performance, but Streep doesn't get a lot to work with, and it is a little disconcerting that the magic of cinema means that Emmeline Pankhurst looks uncannily like Margaret Thatcher.
So, fans of a certain flavour of British cinema will find themselves more or less in their comfort zone, although personally I found Gavron's fondness for shaky-cam distracting rather than involving (the nausea-inducing effect of this may have been exacerbated by the fact I was watching the film on a huge screen from practically the front row of the cinema, of course). There are signs of the film-makers attempting to make something a bit more edgy and committed, however, of which the wobbly camerawork is just one sign. Certainly the BBFC advisory warning 'contains scenes of force feeding' is not one usually found on your typical Jane Austen adaptation.
This is just one example of the unremittingly horrible time that Mulligan's character has in the course of the movie – she is patronised, belittled, exploited, clobbered, arrested, imprisoned, forcibly stripped (calm down gents, there's nothing to see), thrown out by her husband, blackmailed, has her son taken from her, arrested again, force fed… the list goes ever on and on. I suppose it is just about possible that all this stuff happened to one person, but in the context of the film it all seems a bit manipulative and contrived, as though the struggle for the vote wasn't a worthy enough cause in and of itself, and this has to be the story of someone who really and properly goes through the mill.
It's not even as if the film concludes with everyone happily trooping off to the ballot box – the film climaxes shortly after Derby Day 1913 (you will either know the historical significance of this or you won't), with the actual vote not going to women until 1918 (but hey, it was still over half a century before Switzerland). What's missing is recognition of the important impact that the First World War had on British society and culture, part of which was the empowerment of women. But that would perhaps have made for too big and complex a story. (I suppose the same reasoning explains why the film is arguably conflating the suffragette cause with the socialist movement, as someone I saw the film with suggested was the case: the core of the suffragette movement was made up of women much more middle-class than Mulligan's character.)
This is by no means a bad film and it does shed light on an important moment in our modern history, doing so with sincerity and no small degree of skill. But it's almost as though the film-makers don't trust the audience to be interested in the story on its own merits, which is why this film is arguably more simplistic and manipulative than it really needed to be. Still very watchable if you like this sort of thing, though.