Thursday, 29 October 2015

History as hovis commercial

Jenny on Suffragette

I made myself go to this film.

I find myself at odds with what so many of the critics have to say about it. Since they are almost all men perhaps they're afraid of being seen not to like it for fear of being dubbed sexist or unsympathetic to the Cause.

I thought it was good acting applied to bad history. The film suggests the following – all exaggerations, sloppily thought through, or just plain wrong

All male persons are total bastards or just feeble wimps

All women are heroines

The acts of terrorism by the militant branch of the Suffragettes were justified

Emily Davison's reckless and heroic act resulted in women getting the vote

The Suffragette movement resulted in getting universal suffrage for women (hmm, only 16 years later so there’s a bit of a time lag, and since it's entirely set in 1912 the film overlooks the impact of WW1)

A working class woman could rise to a position of influence in a movement run by aristocrats and upper middle class women

It was always winter

It was always raining

There was always smog and every room was smoky

People only ever lit their rooms with candles and paraffin lamps

You can get away with lumpen extras and terrible CGI in a period film especially if you film on available light in dark, smoky wintery rooms and against whatever light there is

If you have fussy hand held camera work and equally fussy editing that makes up for a very boring script

Brendan Gleeson will be condemned to playing policemen until he is too old to be plausible in the part.

It reminded me of Vera Drake, another period film shot in grey, dark green and sepia with a working class heroine, and which I also disliked for its utter lack of plausibility and specious stereotyping.

I thought by far the best bit was the brutal horror of the force feeding scene and the acknowledgement that women could not be allowed to die because of the political embarrassment it would cause. The film does succeed in making the point that so many men hate and fear women - interesting that one of the trailers was for the film about Malala, so the issue is still with us.

Joe’s heckle

Oh, Jenny, I liked it so much more than you did! Of course I’m sympathetic to the cause of female suffrage (aren’t we all?) but that wouldn’t be enough to persuade me. I’m actually quite resistant to the sentimental treatment of modish causes. Pride bothered me, much as I enjoyed it, because it felt too easy to have our tears jerked over the destruction of South Wales mining communities in a nostalgic kind of way, when, as a society, we’d let it happen and had just installed an ultra-Thatcherite government to do more of the same.  

I’m probably less concerned about historical accuracy than you are. I could have tolerated the historical distortions in The Imitation Game if they’d made the story more rather than less internally coherent. To take just one example, it made no sense that the rest of the code-breakers were so resistant to Turing’s machine, even to the point of violence (in observance of the Hollywood convention that drama is not occurring unless things are getting smashed) when they clearly all understood the enormous odds against solving the problem with nothing but pencil and paper.

At a human level, I found the story told in Suffragette fairly compelling. If there were inaccurate period details I didn’t spot them. I think you may be right on the unlikely rise of the working class heroine through the ranks of the movement. I didn’t register it in class terms, though, but rather as an issue of pace and scope – a bit too much happening too quickly to too few characters. Perhaps the film erred here on the side of dramatic economy, with Maud serving as survivor of sexual abuse, oppressed female worker, powerless mother, suffragette recruit, potential government agent, torture victim, and witness to the final horror. This filled out her role at the cost of making the suffragette organisation feel under-populated.

I don’t think the film suggested that Emily Davison’s death led directly to female suffrage. Maud is clearly traumatised by it. Helen Bonham Carter’s character, Edith Ellyn (also fictional, I now see) seems deeply despondent. They both react as if to a defeat. Maud’s last words to Edith are to the effect that they must go on (with the struggle). The upswing in mood comes only right at the end, with the funeral presented as publicity coup, which is immediately followed by the actual dates of legislation. Films about historic struggles tend to simplify the causes of victory. This one struck me as being less guilty than most.

You felt that the film justified acts of terrorism. I thought it was more ambiguous. Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) has a persuasive moment when he tells Maud how close the bombing of Lloyd-George’s country house came to killing the housekeeper. When Edith is criticised for leading impressionable young women into violent criminal behaviour, it seemed to me we were invited to make the connection with the grooming methods of today’s ISIS recruiters.

I assume Steed fell into the bastard category for you. I found him more complicated. The class issue is interestingly touched on when he tries to persuade Maud that she is being exploited by privileged women with much less to lose. His appeal to some kind of class solidarity here felt like more than just a “good cop” routine.

His ministerial boss (Samuel West) was more one-dimensional, as was Maud’s employer – another character burdened, you could argue, with too much social weight, representing both cruel overseer and unrestrained abuser. Her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw), on the other hand, though he gives up their child for adoption while she’s on the run, is certainly no brute, and not exactly a wimp either, just a decent man of his time, trapped within socially determined limits. The women of the neighbourhood who ostracise the family play their own role in this desperate outcome.