Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.

Far From The Madding Crowd

Director: Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

Passion, obsession and betrayal burst from every frame of this compelling, fresh and faithful adaption of Thomas Hardy‘s classic Victorian novel.

His rustic romance of a headstrong heiress and her three wildly different suitors is powered by a first-rate cast on their best form. Carey Mulligan is captivating as Bathsheba Everdene, famously played by Julie Christie in the 1967 version.

The orchestral score swells over the green and pleasant land of a production rich in period detail. The handsome locations are shot on film  – not digitally – in the county of Dorset (Wessex) where the book was set. This beds the story deep in historical and local context.

In an economical piece of character sketching, we first meet the beautiful, intelligent and impulsive Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) riding freely on horseback. She is seen by the good shephard Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is diligently watching his flock. She is sporting a sleek, red riding-jacket, he is dressed in practical working clothes.

Valuing her independence above all else, Bathsheba is saved from an uncertain future when she inherits her uncle’s farm and determines to restore it to it’s once prosperous profitability.

Bathsheba is a political beast who doles out praise and punishments to her workers in public, she not only helps on the farm but is careful to be seen to be helping out on the farm.

She’s aided and abetted by her servant Liddy (Jessica Barden) who’s a useful source of village gossip and accompanies Bathsheba in making merry mischief.

As circumstances turn darker so Liddy slips from the frame. This is a shame as they share a sweet and believable friendship and it offers Bathsheba an extra dimension, preventing her from being defined by her relationship with men.

Bathsheba recognises men are attracted to her but sees it as a trap with no value – until she struggles in the man’s world of business. At the local market she’s reduced using her charm to encourage the local merchants to at least try her merchandise.

Farming life is a wild meadow of activity. As well as harvests, sheep dips and recruitment fairs, there’s bare-knuckle boxing, swordplay, gambling, storms, fires, madness and the tragic death of an infant.

The plot revolves around the ill-considered sending of a valentines card. When she is kissed for the first time Bathsheba is shocked by the strength of her own reaction. It derails her social sure-footedness and leads to choices which shreds her independence and happiness.

Bathsheba receives three propose; from the honest shepherd Gabriel, swaggering soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the emotionally fragile landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She sings a duet with one, rides tandem with another and marries a third.

Though the script sensibly streamlines the novel, it remains emotionally articulate and frequently funny. The focus is so tight on Bathsheba, outside of her suitors and Liddy, there’s barely another character who has a speaking role of note.

This is the weakness of the film as we’d like to spend longer here, perhaps wander around the countryside and meet a few more of the interesting looking characters who populate the village.

As the tone grows darker and the story more violent, the assured pacing of Danish director Vinterberg delivers dramatic action which is always underpinned by strong character motivation.

At quieter moments he is able to capture the nuance of social status, such as when characters wordlessly shift seats around a dinner table to accommodate an unexpected, superior guest.

Vinterberg is assisted by the vivid cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and the briskly seductive editing of Claire Simpson.

Although unquestionably a fine and suitably physical actor with the requisite intelligence and stillness of purpose, it’s curious to cast the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a role who embodies what Hardy saw as the great virtues of the English.

Michael Sheen demonstrates his tremendous ability to suggest torrents of inner turmoil with a bare twitch of the mouth. As Boldwood struggles for the correct words, his quiet pleading is magnificently crafted from tight smiles and difficult pauses.

It has echoes of Prince Charles questioning the meaning of love when announcing his engagement to the considerable younger Diana Spencer.

The remarkable Carey Mulligan gives a rich and nuanced performance of acute emotional resonance. Her doe eyes convey Bathsheba’s vulnerability, strength and desire as well as her growing self-awareness and changing values.

Mulligan may not win next year’s best actress Oscar or even make the final cut, but she’s the early high-score on the leader board.

It’s easy to fathom why the men fall for Bathsheba, it’s more of a wonder why more men don’t.