Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Suffragette: Solid emancipation drama

Suffragette (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting nudity

By Derrick Bang 

Had Carey Mulligan been born in a different time and place, she likely would have become popular among painters or photographers eager to explore the complexities of her amazingly expressive features.

After being arrested a second time, Maud (Carey Mulligan) is presented with a tempting
offer by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He'll make the charges against her melt
away ... if she'll become his spy.
Her capacity for forlorn resignation — for tolerant anguish, and acceptance of a fate that she understands is unjust — is particularly acute. I imagine her becoming the face of Dorothea Lange’s iconic, Depression-era photo, Migrant Mother.

Mulligan has demonstrated this capacity for quietly compliant sorrow in several films, most notably 2010’s haunting Never Let Me Go, likely to remain one of the bleakest — and most cautionary — science fiction parables ever made. What makes her work in such parts so memorably heartbreaking, of course, is the perceptive intelligence that’s always present behind her melancholy gaze.

She once again displays such emotional intensity in yet another of this season’s cinematic depictions of our turbulent past: the desperate, early 20th century nadir of the British women’s emancipation movement, in director Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. Scripter Abi Morgan — who won a well-deserved Emmy Award for her compelling Cold War-era miniseries, The Hour — has surrounded Mulligan’s composite “typical working-class character” with actual historical figures, to persuasively portray what it must have been like for the agitators determined to win not only the right to vote, but a greater measure of control over their own lives.

And dignity. Definitely dignity.

I never cease to be amazed — becoming immersed in real-life stories of this nature — by mankind’s ability to exceed even my lowest opinion of their behavior.

In this particular case, of course, the emphasize is on mankind.

The setting is London in 1912, where Maud Watts (Mulligan) and her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), work onerous, back-breaking — and highly dangerous — hours in a laundry. The shop is run by Norman (Geoff Bell), a slimy, lecherous brute who could have stepped right out of a Dickens novel, and whose interest in Maud feels decidedly unhealthy: a dynamic that Sonny obviously notices, but apparently chooses to ignore.

Maud’s world shifts slightly when, heading home one day, she finds herself in the midst of a vandalizing protest by members of the Women’s Society and Political Union (WSPU). Shop windows are smashed; the perpetrators melt back into the crowd before the police arrive ... but not before Maud recognizes one of them, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), as a co-worker.

With Maud’s awareness aroused, she soon realizes that the WSPU ranks include her local “diagnostician,” Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), who functions as both ersatz doctor and pharmacist at an apothecary run by her husband, Hugh (Finbar Lynch, in a quietly sympathetic role). By all rights, Edith should have studied to become a full-fledged GP, but, well, “My father didn’t approve.”

Circumstances prompt an unwilling and unprepared Maud to testify on behalf of her fellow laundry workers, during a hearing before Parliament; she rises to the occasion, her heartfelt words appearing to move David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller, playing the actual British Liberal politician and statesman).

Sonny is displeased by Maud’s “agitating,” but accepts her genuine assumption that she has done her part. Sadly, all the WSPU members are disappointed and enraged when Lloyd George subsequently announces that his investigation has found “no reason” to change the status quo.

Actually, the situation is far worse. Behind the scenes, Lloyd George and political colleague Benedict Haughton (Samuel West) have hired a seasoned anti-anarchist investigator, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), to oversee police surveillance and harsh counter-measures. One comparatively benign jail sentence might have cowed a lesser woman; the incident merely hardens Maud’s resolve.

Almost against her will, but recognizing the legitimacy — indeed, the very morality — of the WSPU cause, Maud becomes a true-blue acolyte.

At which point, her life falls apart in every way possible.

Critics may complain that Morgan goes overboard with the Job-like consequence of Maud’s “misbehavior,” but I’m certain that many working-class WSPU militants endured even worse. No doubt, though; Maud is laid as low as possible, enduring a level of disloyalty by Sonny that defies comprehension.

Except that it doesn’t, and that’s the greater tragedy. Whishaw, recognized as James Bond’s Q, isn’t a one-dimensional lout; Sonny simply is a weak man who can’t handle the thought of embarrassment or consequences. He loves Maud, in his own way, and we see no evidence that he’s physically abusive. At the same time, he betrays her in the worst possible way, even though the act obviously rips him apart inside.

Gleeson’s Steed, as well, is no mere cardboard villain. He has been hired to do a job, and he obviously takes the assignment seriously; at the same time, his feelings are more complicated. He gives Maud every chance to re-think her decisions; he also grows uneasy at the increasingly brutal treatment Haughton encourages from the sneering police thugs and wardens (many of them, sadly, women themselves).

Gleeson clearly enjoys morally conflicted characters; like Mulligan, he brings a wealth of emotional complexity to his performances. Steed offers balance to the story’s genuine male sadists, typified by Maud’s laundry shop boss and the upper-class Haughton, whose behavior is beyond comprehension. (Except — again — that it isn’t.)

In a nice note of irony, Haughton’s wife Alice (Romola Garai) is one of the primary WSPU coordinators. In the aftermath of one police round-up, when Haughton arrives to bail out his wife but refuses to similarly rescue her four friends — including Maud and Edith — we also learn that Alice brought her own considerable wealth into her marriage ... but isn’t allowed to control its use.

Maud’s growing resolve is strengthened by observing such brief interactions, and reflecting on the discrimination they represent; she’s also inspired by the stiff-upper-lip fortitude of people such as fellow agitator Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), a veteran of many prison stints, and charismatic WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep).

The latter’s involvement in this story is brief, but Streep makes the most of Pankhurst’s inspirational, late-night speech: an event almost — but not quite — quashed by Steed and his minions.

Pankhurst and Davison are actual historical figures, the latter of particular note ... but — major spoiler warning — don’t investigate her background until after seeing this film.

Carter’s Edith Ellyn is fictional, but somewhat inspired by WSPU bodyguard trainer Edith Garrud, one of the Western world’s first female professional martial arts instructors. Ellyn is more planner and chemist than physical defender; indeed, her constitution grows increasingly frail, due to the treatment she endures while imprisoned. This sets up a touching conflict with her devoted husband, who hesitates to “force” her to do anything — or not do it — but worries about losing her.

Early 20th century London is brought to life by production designer Alice Normington, who pays particular attention to the hostile environment of the laundry sweat shop; we can almost feel the oppressive heat and humidity. Cinematographer Eduard Grau adds to the overall pallor by emphasizing a muted, grainy and colorless palette.

Similarly, we feel the claustrophobic squalor of Maud and Sonny’s tenement home: a dark and cheerless hovel that she nonetheless tries to brighten as much as possible.

Oft-Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat delivers another of his richly poignant scores, with tender themes that Gavron (Brick Lane) employs sparingly, and to excellent effect.

Gavron draws similarly delicate performances from her cast, and I’ve no doubt Mulligan will be on the short list for an Academy Award nomination.

Suffragette honorably depicts events that really aren’t that long ago — more’s the pity — and reminds us, anew, that necessary change often is accompanied by considerable tragedy. And as this film concludes, Gavron cuts to archival footage that makes the statement even more powerfully ... as does a concluding crawl that reveals, country by country, when women finally earned the right to vote.

Shame on us all.

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