The Pitch: Votes For Women! (For Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG Awards…)
The Review: I don’t think I’ve known what it is to be truly repressed. Sure, I was subject to the odd spell of bullying at school, for everything from my name to my nose, but I’m a white, middle class male who worked his way up from the working classes and, thanks to a diligent mother who put her families’ needs before her own, never really went without during that working class upbringing. So when it comes to a film like this, dealing with the subjugation of a part of society, I tend to judge the success of the film at least in part in how successfully it conveys what it’s like to be part of that minority. Here, then, is the first thing that strikes you about Suffragette: it’s dealing with the rights and issues of a suppressed majority. Here’s a quote from the 1911 census:
Sex Proportions. —Of the 36,070,492 persons enumerated in England and Wales in 1911, 17,445,608 were males and 18,624,884 were females. These numbers give an excess of 1,179,276 females over males, which would, however, be somewhat reduced if we could include in the reckoning the English and Welsh members of the Army, Navy and Merchant Service and mercantile community temporarily absent abroad and also the numbers of fishermen absent at sea on the night of the census.
When you’ve finished having a giggle over the phrase “sex proportions”, take a moment for that to sink in. The women fighting for equal rights were actually the larger proportion of society, yet it took a vocal minority for their cause to even become recognised and, as Sarah Gavron’s film lays out, it wasn’t even something that the majority of women saw as an issue at the time, so conditioned were they into accepting the status quo as being the right way of things.
Gavron and her screenwriter Abi Morgan (‘Shame’, ‘The Iron Lady’) create a fictional character to explore both sides of women in society in the shape of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a dutiful mother and housewife to husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). They both work at an industrial laundry where Maud’s mother also worked before her, and where the first rumblings of discontent over gender inequality are already rearing their head. It’s when some of the workers take part in more physical acts of disruption such as throwing bricks through windows, all under the auspices of the Women’s Social And Political Union that Maud finds herself questioning the relative lack of rights and status for women and becomes drawn into the WPSU’s work. She and her co-worker Violet Miller (Ann-Marie Duff) attend a parliamentary hearing on the subject, but Maud finds herself speaking at the hearing and is instantly flagged under the police surveillance programme looking to weed out disruptive influences (led by Brendan Gleeson’s inspector) and she’s soon suffering the same indignities and abuse as the other leading members (including Helena Bonham Carter’s pharmacist and Meryl Streep in a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst).
Morgan’s script is fairly straight and conventional, and what it does well is to get into the intimate details of the indignities, punishments and abuse that these women suffered, simply to be allowed to express themselves in the same manner as their male counterparts. As well as the lack of voting rights, the film also clearly spells out the abhorrent working conditions that many women faced at the time, treated little better than slave labour and with their husbands often watching on; an overbearing, sexually aggressive boss at the laundry might feel a bit much but it works well as a plot device to add tension to key moments and never feels forced. Where Suffragette is slightly less successful is in attempting to understand why the men of society were so keen on preserving the current order; while it does show the lengths the police and government were willing to go to, method isn’t fully underpinned by motive and the film may have resonated even more had it been able to get under the skin. Other than that, the plotting is very much join the dots and barrels along relentlessly towards its historical climax at Epsom racecourse in 1913. The film has a trump card in its location filming at the Houses Of Parliament, but Gavron seems too intent on drawing your attention to the set dressing and some of these scenes have a somewhat staged feel. This is in sharp contrast to the prison and domestic sequences, which capture the squalor and suffering very efficiently.
Where the film comes alive, truly building on the effectiveness of its setting, is through its key performances. Many of the male characters are slightly underwritten or stereotypical so Brendan Gleeson’s stoic policeman provides welcome balance, with a veil of empathy shrouding his requirement to fulfill his duty. But the film really belongs to Carey Mulligan: it’s Maud’s journey that illuminates both the suffering of those joining the fight and the apathy and disdain of the rest of society not willing to rock the boat when they didn’t see the end outcome as important. Mulligan succeeds in being both defiant and vulnerable as the situation demands without ever descending into melodrama and she’s complemented well by the likes of Duff and Bonham Carter. It’s these performances that give the film an emotional core and allow its anger to build before a thought-provoking climax. While I don’t know that I could truly put myself in the shoes of the suffragettes to understand how they felt and what they suffered after having seen this, what Sarah Gavron’s film did succeed in is making me ashamed of the past actions of my own gender, and for that and for the performances of Mulligan, Bonham Carter and Gleeson it deserves your vote when you’re deciding on your next cinema visit.
Why see it at the cinema: Enveloping yourself in the darkness of the cinema will allow you to immerse yourself in the hardship these women endured, as well as allowing you to see every straining emotion in Carey Mulligan’s face and to truly feel her pain.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language, moderate violence, a scene of force feeding. Way to go again with the rather specific spoilers, BBFC. It wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t insist on putting them unavoidably
My cinema experience: Having spend the day with my niece for her birthday at Chessington World Of Adventures, I scoured the map for Cineworlds along my route home. In the end, I settled on Cineworld Rochester, a brief diversion off the M25 and where I had time to log a double bill with Crimson Peak.
It’s a fairly standard Cineworld, although they do insist on checking your Unlimited card before every screening. I always find this somewhat disappointing before the second film of a double bill, although I’ve done as many as five films in a day (at Cineworld Stevenage) and been checked every time.
Having then juggled phone (with QR ticket code) and wallet, I then ended up with even less hands as the timings hadn’t worked out for allowing time to have dinner: hence my Cineworld dinner – as in I’ve done this before, probably too often – of a large hot dog, a bag of Revels and a large soft drink. I’ve developed an odd predilection for putting tomato ketchup down the whole hot dog and mustard on the first half only.
I then took my seat on the front row of the main block, which in common with other Cineworlds I visit (Huntingdon springs to mind) has a railing at the front, allowing the long of limb such as myself to dangle their legs and sit in comfort. My only issue was when putting my feet on the railing, it wasn’t actually that far from the seat so I ended up curled up in a sort of ball with my bottom sliding off the seat and my knees under my chin. Good job I can get comfy anywhere. As it’s a fairly new Cineworld (or feels it, at any rate), the seats are still in good nick and there were no issues with sound or vision.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Moby Dick. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. The Catcher In The Rye. To Kill A Mockingbird. All candidates to be, at one time or another, thought of as The Great American Novel. Each instantly conjures up very specific images and thoughts of its era, be it the banks of the Mississippi river or the highly charged atmosphere of a courtroom in the Great Depression. They also have iconic characters as identifiable as the novels themselves, from Captain Ahab to Holden Caulfield, from Atticus Finch to Tom Sawyer. When tackling such a cultural heavyweight, two approaches immediately suggest themselves: to simply stage the material in as plain a manner as possible, to allow the situation and the characters to speak for themselves, or to distil the key elements of the source and to then attempt to concentrate them and then to do your best to inject them directly into your eyeballs. Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Baz Luhrmann will not be hugely surprised to hear that the soundtrack includes cover versions of Crazy In Love and Back To Black and you’ll need some indoor sunglasses, whether or not you see it in 3D.
You can imagine that the setting was what attracted Luhrmann to Gatsby initially; when a decade is prefixed by the word “roaring”, is there anyone more suited to visually realising that roar? The only slight problem with the Roaring Twenties as put on screen by Baz are that the feel awfully like the escapades of the bohemians of Montmatre around thirty years earlier. When Gatsby puts on one of his enormous weekend parties, it’s hard not to imagine Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman belting their lungs out in a side room somewhere. Despite the repetition, it’s an effective device, contemporising the art direction and costumes to the jazz age but making the music contemporary to our times is about all you could do to put modern audiences, who probably couldn’t tell their Charleston from their Charles Lindbergh, into the mindset of what made the height of that decade so irresistible. Many adaptations of The Great Gatsby have moved their setting to later in the twenties as a precursor to The Great Depression, making it a moral tale of the downfall of the overambitious, but Baz wisely keeps the focus earlier, allowing the characters to stand and fall on their own terms and recognising that you don’t need to add a Wall Street crash to get underneath the fallacy of the American dream of the times. But if there’s one moment that is sublimely effective, it’s actually one ripped straight from the era, our first introduction to the great Gatsby himself being surrounded by fireworks and the triumphant refrain of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.
DiCaprio might just be perfect casting for the elusive Gatsby, who retains his charm even as his secrets are exposed. That winning smile and the glint in the eye magnetise those around him, except for Joel Edgerton’s Tom who refuses to be taken in. DiCaprio and Edgerton are both electric and it’s their scenes together that give The Great Gatsby some of its best moments. Maybe surprisingly to those keen to stereotype him, it’s the most dialled down moments of the film that actually hold the greatest power, from DiCaprio and Edgerton bristling at each other with half-glances to Gatsby staring wistfully across the bay, longing for his lost Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The problems with the casting start with Mulligan, who’s a fantastic actress with almost nothing to do except scenery dressing, the heart and soul somewhere lost and the tension between her male suitors subsequently diminished. The other black hole is in Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, Maguire’s expressionless face often too passive to surrounding events. The loss of his relationship in the novel and a framing device added with Maguire both narrating and in a hospital, reviewing events after the fact, only serves to put further distance between him and the other cast, undermining his own narrative arc.
It’s not just Nick Carraway’s narrative that doesn’t quite come off; the framing device also allows Luhrmann to indulge some of his more theatrical flourishes, including having Fitzgerald’s words appear on screen as Carraway’s character writes them, a literary allusion too far and the text feels heavier and less natural as a result. Overall this makes The Great Gatsby somewhat of a mixed bag, and it may come down to the very nature of the source material. The central characters, despite the natural pull of Gatsby himself, are a little less sympathetic than Baz’s normal doomed romances, from Christian and Satine to Romeo and Juliet themselves, and it never quite feels that we’ve understood what truly motivates them in the way that Luhrmann has had his cast portray them. The Great Gatsby isn’t a total success, but even when it’s shot like a parody of a perfume advert it never feels anything less than interesting. Sadly this Great American Novel has to settle for being just a middling American film.
Why see it at the cinema: No one makes a spectacle of themselves and their cast quite like Baz, but while the jazz parties look great, some of the more intimate moments, especially the later confrontations, work much better in a darkened room with your full attention.
Why see it in 3D: Luhrmann doesn’t make quite as much of the 3D in the party scenes as you might expect. Instead, some of the most effective moments are simply staring across the bay, emphasising the geographical and emotional distance between the characters. Generally the luminescence holds up, even in some of the darker scenes, and overall the 3D is a worthwhile option if you’re a fan of such things.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate sex, violence and bloody images. Lurmann and Pearce keep it fairly restrained and it’s pretty much in the centre of the distribution of 12A ratings. Whether or not your children would be interested in a gaudy extrapolation of a ninety year old novel is another matter entirely.
My cinema experience: Having seen Fast & Furious 6 (at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds) directly before, I was a little concerned at having not booked a ticket. Thankfully, despite the 2D showing an hour earlier having completely sold out, the 3D and the later showing time proved less of a draw and saw a crowd two-thirds full. Just at the end of a decent amount of ads and trailers, a group of about five middle-aged sounding women (it was dark, so who knows really?) came in and sat very audibly behind me. The fact that they settled fairly quickly, seemed thoroughly entertained throughout and left making wholly complementary remarks suggests there is an audience out there for this, and not just for middle-aged women; just maybe not for this middle-aged man.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: Willy. Dinkle. Ding-dong. Schlong. Dick. Penis. Silly words, aren’t they? Got that out of our systems for now? Good. When I was at school, and the time came for sex education, our teacher put in the shiny new VHS cassette, pressed play and within five minutes a man and a woman appeared, walking around their house like the fruity naturists they obviously were, with not a stitch of clothing on. To a room full of eleven year olds, this was worthy of plenty of laughing, pointing and discussion, until we were told if we continued, the tape would go off again and wouldn’t come back on. But that urge to giggle at the mere mention of genitalia, never mind seeing them on screen, is still suppressed deep down in a great many of us, and it’s also that need to suppress the nature of discussing or seeing something that pretty much every one of us has that has seen Shame get a lot of attention for mostly the wrong reasons. It’s felt at times as if Shame has been categorised along with the pornography that its lead character is so fond of, yet the comparison feels as sensible as likening Goodfellas to The Three Stooges on the basis of slightly funny looking people with strong accents.
One thing’s absolutely for sure; Steve McQueen isn’t afraid to shy away from the big issues or themes. His first film, Hunger, was a triumph of style marrying grimness to substance with his story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Michael Fassbender took on the lead role both then and here, but the characters couldn’t be more different. Put him in a crowd, and Fassbender’s Brandon might be the coolest looking there, but he’ll be the one at the back, doing whatever he can to avoid drawing attention to himself. Your eyes might be drawn to him if you’re an attractive woman; you can be sure, if that’s the case, that his eyes will already be on you, and will have discreetly looked you up and down, mentally undressing you both physically and emotionally. But Brandon might also be hanging back for fear of commitment; physical contact and emotional gratification are right up his alley, if you’ll pardon the pun, but the thought of emotional connection to a woman, even his own sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan), seems to be the furthest thing from his mind.
First things first, then: Shame isn’t really about sex. It’s been loosely described as being about sex addiction, but that might be no more than an attempt to put a 21st century label on the fractured psyche of a man who just can’t say no to himself; but then again, why should he? In our internet led society of instant gratification and ready access to whatever you might desire, is it any wonder that someone channelling their OCD and overactive libido ends up following a path such as Brandon? it’s easy for Brandon to keep his deeper desires and needs to himself, but whenever his life rubs up against normal society, the relative innocents – or sister Cissy, about as far from innocent as Brandon – are what brings Brandon’s peccadilloes into sharper focus. Fassbender is fantastic, possibly in a career best performance in what’s been a busy few years, and retains just enough sympathy to keep your investment in the story, despite his more obvious character flaws. Again the charm and smoothness that’s picked him out as a future Bond in the likes of last year’s X-Men prequel are put to good use, but even Bond might blush at some of what Brandon gets up to, and it’s a neat trick in creating a character that both compels and repulses, often at the same time. Mulligan has a smaller role, but she’s almost up to the same standard, and her brashness and brittleness offer a strong dramatic counterpoint to Fassbender.
But Shame would be nothing without a director willing to take on material like this, and Steve McQueen succeeds in taking Shame up another level from his previous film. Hunger was almost a film in three distinct acts, the second of which was a standout single take scene between Bobby Sands and a priest. Shot from a fixed viewpoint, the conversation gripped despite being two people at a table, but even then, McQueen knew just when to cut to a more conventional shot for heightened effect. Here, his visual style is taken up a notch; from the crisp, functional blandness of Brandon’s apartment to the golden shimmer of New York nightlife, Shame looks gorgeous, and it’s not the occasional shots of genitalia at the edge of frame that will linger in the mind after the film finishes. The long single camera set-ups are put to more frequent use, but none outstays their welcome. The tight close-up on Mulligan’s face during her slow jazz rendition of New York, New York might get the most attention, but another scene were Fassbender has a dinner date is even better, allowing the slow burn of the chemistry between him and his prospective partner to ooze off the screen, every tiny detail captured in the frame.
As outstanding a debut as it was, Hunger still felt as if it would be as comfortable in an art installation as it would in a cinema. Shame feels made with only one possible destination in mind, the tricks less apparent when taken at a distance and the performances raw and resonant. By the end, the vice-like grip that’s slowly been exerted throughout the film takes hold and refuses to let go amid scenes of almost unbearable tension. Through it all, the flesh on display is kept to a few scenes and used to best effect each time it’s seen; you might need to repress those inner-child giggles when the first male member appears, somewhat briefly and briskly, but by halfway through it’s to the credit of all involved that no matter what’s seen on screen, it feels perfectly in service of the narrative. The real shame in all this is that from the US’s NC-17 rating to the judgemental looks from the usher as your ticket is checked, Shame has been judged by its reputation, which might deny the film the level of viewers its quality deserves. (Balls.)
Why see it at the cinema: McQueen and Fassbender are genuine talents; the long sequences demand to be seen in a cinema to allow you to soak in every single detail. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you immerse yourself in Shame.
The Score: 10/10