Suffragette – Sarah Gavron (2015)

While preparing to write this review, I wracked my brain trying to think of any other films I knew that concerned the history of the feminist movement or the battle for women’s right to vote. And I came up bone dry. Even films that are generally feminist in perspective, at least mainstream films, are pathetically hard to come by. (I exclude such films, more prevalent in the past 15 to 20 years, particularly within the genre of comedy, that would claim the feminist mantle by snarkily proving that women can be men too, while doing nothing more than celebrating the status quo of white upper middle-class life and winner-take-all capitalism). So even if Suffragette were not a very good movie, it would be notable and worth seeing simply because it tries to portray an era of history almost never portrayed, and a political movement that is almost never considered within popular culture, even as it is the foundation, in many ways, of huge swaths of what is taken for granted about the modern world. Happily though Suffragette is a good movie; it is not pedantic, and conveys the historical detail and political stakes of its subject in a naturalistic, fluid way while also connecting on an emotional level. While it does have its problems (mostly on a formal level), it also is powerful in that it pulls no punches, and does not lamely celebrate how far we’ve come, as you might expect such a film to. Instead, it is happy to paint the suffragettes realistically, as angry agitators willing to break the law, destroy property, and reject slow, incremental change in favor of direct action even at the risk of inciting violence. In this, it speaks to our own moment more so than a film that, like so many in the last few decades, dare only portray the fight against political injustice through the lens of passive resistance. It is a film unafraid to be angry.

The story concerns the political awakening and radicalization of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wage slave toiling non-stop in a laundry in turn of the century London. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) work together and, we assume, live in factory housing with their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). One day while out delivering some laundry, Maud is surprised when two women smash a shopfront window with rocks while yelling political slogans. Awakened to the idea of women’s equality, but still ignorant of the details, Maud is educated by her coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is generally a thorn in the side of management, and set to testify before Parliament and Prime Minister Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) about the generally deplorable working conditions of the laundry, and particularly the condition for women, ahead of a general vote on women’s suffrage. Unable to testify because she has been beaten by her husband, Maud steps into her place and gives extemporaneous testimony. Present at a rally that hopes to mark the announcement of suffrage, Maud and the other women are outraged when Lloyd George announces the proposal did not pass. Maud’s affinity for the movement is cemented when the police, under the supervision of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), beat and arrest many of the women at the rally. Unable to bail herself out of jail, Maud is forced to stay in prison for a week, her husband and son at home only able to guess where she is. Freed, and all the more committed to the cause, Maud joins up with a more militant arm of the suffrage movement under the direction of Dr. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a rare female physician who cares for many of the workers at the laundry. They begin a campaign of bombing post boxes and breaking shop windows; at the same time, Inspector Steed begins to tighten the dragnet in an attempt to put down the suffrage movement. Sonny eventually sides with the law against his wife, and presses his claims to custody of their child, while shutting her out of the household. Maud is forced to live in a church attic which provides sanctuary for suffragettes, and visits George on the sly. Sonny, unable or unwilling to care for George without Maud’s support, puts him up for adoption, and after blowing up Lloyd George’s soon to be completed summer home, Maud and her cohort plan to use the upcoming Epsom Derby to get their message before the film cameras there to photograph King George V.

What makes the film powerful is that it ties together several threads that are often considered separately, or left dangling, in the popular imagining of what women’s suffrage means. Chief among them is the connection between economic justice and the vote – Maud is not interested in having the vote as a means to achieve some abstract equality with men, or to be able to exercise political power for its own sake, or to be the equal of her husband socially, but because it is the only road she can see to a less miserable life for herself and her family. Before he decides to take recourse in the law and deprive her of her maternal rights, Sonny and Maud are de facto equals in that both are wage slaves and both have little opportunity to change their circumstance, or provide a better one for their child; Maud’s testimony importantly makes concrete that poverty is not just deprivation of leisure and pleasure, but indeed a life lived in physical pain and an early trip to the grave. Where Sonny and Maud are not equal is in their treatment at the laundry, as the foreman, who controls the employees from an early age, the status quo begetting generations of misery, is free to sexually molest the female workers from a young age. So the film does well to tie together economic power and biopower, and to show how limits on one helps guarantee a limit on the other (and thus keeps bodies docile). Another strength is that the film portrays agitation in a realistic manner; the police are shown to be a tool of state repression, and the portrayal of officers beating up women in the street is an effective counter to the image that tends to be propagated, in popular culture, of the Victorian era and its long sunset as an age of decorum, patronizing chivalry, and of women kept prisoner in gilded cages. (Again, when do we see working women of this era portrayed? Almost never, and even when we do, they are still too often idealized, a la Downton Abbey). When Inspector Steed confronts Maud with the violence implicit in her act of helping to blow up Lloyd George’s country estate, she does not pause and is not chastened, but instead vehemently rebukes him, offering a critique of the state’s monopoly on violence, and effectively making a case that when deprived of figurative representation before the law, bodies must use the only force they have access to – that is, physical force. The film portrays Maud not as a woman who is nobly willing to sacrifice her family and child for her cause, as we might expect, but instead as a woman who has already been forsaken by society, her previous status of wife and mother just the scrim of propriety the social order has cast over a person who was born without power, without choice, and without recourse. She is driven, from point to point, to survive and work against this system by asserting whatever power she can find – be it in the indecorous use of her body, or in the raising of a rock, or the planting of a bomb. And the ending does not seek to tidy up the picture in any way. This is not a tale of triumph; it might shock those who don’t know, or remember, that the rights being agitated for at the end of the film are still 20 years in Britain’s future. The film is not without fault, but one cannot accuse it of overly sentimentalizing its subject matter. It does lack historical context in that we are dropped into 1908 and don’t understand where the movement arose from materially. This might not matter, but such emphasis is placed on the figure of Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, who does stick out a bit), a fixation not only of the police, but of the film itself, which treats her as an enigma and as an avatar of the movement, without allowing us to understand her involvement, where she came from, or why she is important. The camerawork is also problematic in that it is of the shaky, handheld faux documentary style familiar to the work of director Paul Greengrass, but without much motivation. Do directors even think about motivation for camera placement anymore? The handheld shakiness would make sense in the crowd scenes, if we take the camera to represent the point of view of a member of the rally – but why is the camera moving otherwise? The framing is often sloppy as a result. These are minor distractions, though. Overall Suffragette not only does justice to its subject matter, it sobers us with the realization that so little has changed.

Three and a half stars out of five

Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg (2015)

Steven Spielberg has long been our foremost, and perhaps finest, liberal humanist, a nuanced artist even as he is also, at times, a nuanced ideologue. For a long time, he put forth his hopeful vision of the human animal within the wrappings of the fantastic; as he has gotten older, more and more often he has turned to history for his subjects, working within a style of high drama that simulates a product that used to be called, in old Hollywood, “prestige” or “quality pictures.” Starting with Schindler’s List (although previewed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg raised the stakes of his aesthetic by making statements rather than simply telling stories that might happen to have (an often comforting) morality. As Spielberg has aged, his vision of the human endeavor has grown darker, but also more faceted; if his work is still often problematic (Schindler’s List, grim though it is, remains a fairy tale), it is still to be taken seriously, as the characters he portrays are fully three dimensional, and inhabit the middle tones of reality, rather than the high contrast relief of a cartoon. And although his subject matter has shifted from the far-flung, easily enthralling locales and concepts of his early work to the potentially deadly milieus of rooms in which characters do little but sit and talk, his style has kept pace, and we are never bored. Not that I have taken this to heart, for whenever a new Spielberg “quality” film comes out, I tend not to be excited to see it – “more drab gray and brown chromatics, more guys in suits standing around talking?” says I. I wind up dragging myself to the theater, but always come out braced, feeling remiss for not giving him more credit. So it went with Bridge of Spies, which I have only now finally seen, mostly because all my other choices had bottomed out. What is great about the film is that it speaks to our current moment, and appeals to the better angels of our nature (even though, for this viewer, only fools remain, as angels have long since learned that treading on Mars is safer and more interesting) – yet he does so by gentle, and subtle comparison, rather than with thundering histrionics. While he is out to convince us of something, he also believes in the self-evidence of his conviction, and so approaches us not as cynics in need of correction, nor naive patriots needing ammo for battle; that is to say, he treats his audience with intelligence, which is a rare enough thing these days.

Bridge of Spies concerns the seemingly undramatic, if not uninteresting, case of the clandestine spy swap that returned downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet hands. The film begins at the height of the cold war, as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn. Well regarded insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Abel, and after due consideration of how unpopular such a role will make him, takes the job, and mounts a vigorous defense. Much to his, and our, surprise, Abel has been prejudged not only by the public at large, but by the officers of the court as well – the judge on the case (Dakin Matthews) dismisses all of Donovan’s more than reasonable motions and makes it quite clear that, in his eyes, Abel is guilty of crimes against the state and should be executed. While Donovan does not dispute that Abel is guilty, he also finds him deserving of admiration, as although an enemy, he remains loyal to his cause and does not turn double agent, selling out his beliefs, or, at the least, his allegiance, for money or protection. Not wanting to see Abel executed, Donovan appeals to the judge’s realpolitik patriotism by suggesting that he be imprisoned, preserved in case the circumstance arises that an American agent is, at some time, captured by the Soviets and a deal need be made to bring that loyal solider home. The judge accepts this reasoning, and sentences Abel to jail, much to the consternation of the general public; Donovan’s defense of Abel, and his desire to move his case further through the appellate system, does indeed make him, and his family, momentary pariahs. Parallel to this story, we are introduced to America’s spying scheme involving the development of the U-2 aircraft, its deployment, and Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) eventual capture, imprisonment, and interrogation by the Soviets. Now faced with the eventuality predicted by Donovan, the CIA decides that a swap is necessary to prevent Powers, who was instructed to kill himself rather than be captured, from spilling classified info. They tap Donovan to arrange the swap, as he has been approached, with much subterfuge, by the Soviets via a letter from Abel’s “wife.” Donovan travels to Berlin to arrange the swap without telling anyone, even his wife (Amy Ryan) what he is tasked with. Berlin, having just been rent asunder by the infamous wall, is a dangerous place for Donovan, as he is there without any protection, official or otherwise, and is only allowed to speak, sotto voce, for the U.S. in a fully deniable fashion. He is tasked with going into East Berlin to speak with a mysterious Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch), without escort and without contacts. Complicating matters is that, as the city was being divided, an American grad student was captured on the eastern side trying to bring his girlfriend across to the west – the student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), becomes a pawn in this game, as both the newly formed government of East Germany and the Russians, would prefer to trade him for Abel rather than Powers (the Russians for obvious reasons, the Germans to project the prominence of their newly formed state onto the world stage). Donovan, being the Dad and stand-up guy that he is, doesn’t want to leave Pryor behind, even though he is repeatedly warned by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) that he is not a priority. Donovan crosses into the east, and with his lawyerly wrangling, tries to negotiate a two for one swap. His success or failure remains unresolved until the last minute, at the early morning meeting on the titular bridge.

What makes the movie so great, and “relevant” (ugh), is that Spielberg echos forward so many of the paranoias and fears that, it must be said, have always been America’s bread and butter, but which have taken on a renewed virulence since 9/11, and he does so simply by showing, rather than saying. We recognize familiar names and sights (the U-2 takes off from an airbase in Pakistan, and looks much like a drone) and are perhaps a little taken aback by how much the now supposedly defunct Cold War still inflects, and infects, our body politic. The setting of the film, although slightly after the Second Red Scare, is at the height of nuclear hysteria, the effects of which Spielberg portrays effectively, both via Donovan’s young son (Noah Schnapp), who is heartbreakingly indoctrinated in the ways of useless fear at school, and by way of comparison with the behavior of Rudolf Abel. Abel, a painter and a man of consummate composure, is portrayed as a stoic – he continually, when asked by concerned seconds if he is not worried about his plight, responds, “Would it help?” We understand this is partly shorthand for the Russian national character, but it is also, when compared against the rabid hysteria and herd mentality of the Americans, a portrayal of our national character cast in relief, and a wise response to a world where the individual increasingly has less and less control or free will. Indeed, Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (which displays more insight and less cynicism than most of their directorial work), is at his finest in portraying the travails of men in a world of existential dead-ends, doing their work as best they can, and staying authentic by trying to match that work with their own moral code. The film is an excellent portrayal of humans trapped within the context of history – the Soviets are not boogeymen, but simply hysterical in different ways, and equally convinced of the rightness of their competing, and alien, system (which, as with the portrayal of Abel, defamiliarizes our own system, and makes it seem equally strange and absurd). There are some missteps, mostly in the details. Pryor is seen toting the one copy of his dissertation across the border with him on his mission to deliver his girlfriend from Communist hands – really? And the dialogue gets a little breezy and ahistorical (Abel at one point says there “might be a glitch”). No matter, though, as the heart of the film, and the most affecting part, is the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men who can see beyond the era in which they are both prisoners, and who admire each other for having this quality of timelessness (perhaps the prerequisite for an ethics). Abel at one point tells a story of seeing his parents beaten by anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and contrasts them with a family friend who fascinated the young man because whenever he was knocked down, he immediately stood back up again, and was ravaged the worse for that trait. He compares Donovan favorably to this man, who he calls the “standing man.” And indeed, if Spielberg has an overarching theme throughout his body of work, it is the standing man – almost all of his films are portraits of him. Spielberg is an authentic artist, and it is also important that in an era where most of us cannot but crawl, that we see the standing man. Yet, this fascination is also Spielberg’s weakness. For there is no shame, or failure, in staying down when one is beaten, and what are we to say about those who cannot stand? Is there no sympathy, no place of honor, for them? Where is the artist who can, with equal eloquence, speak for, and redeem, the fallen, the defeated, the tired, and the weak?

Four stars out of five

Mr. Turner – Mike Leigh (2014)

Perhaps my faithful readers might guess, based on my previously expressed feelings about bio-pics, what my feelings might be toward Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s recent film which illustrates the life of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner. Or perhaps such readers, faithful or faithless though they be, would rather not guess, and having tired of rhetorical gambits (of which I admittedly might be seen, albeit through a glass darkly, as the demented Erno Rubik), and on the verge of clicking off to less verbose pastures (of which there are admittedly plenty to choose from), might be heard, in a flourish of agitation similar to┬áMr. Turner’s own, to give a loud grunt and mutter gruffly, “Get on with it Goodrich!” I will admit that this dallying, in a patchy 19th century style, harbors not so much a lack of commentary on the film, but a feeling that such commentary will be, ultimately, banal. Not so the film, as it more than any recent effort makes the past live in a way that is fresh without being revisionist or even very unusual. In fact, aside from the performances, which are distinctive in the way that most of Mr. Leigh’s films tend to be, this could pass for a more burnished than average BBC production. No, it is just that the film does not inspire any radical reaction; indeed, my greatest encomium would be, simply, “go see it.” Some films say something, others simply are. Mr. Turner falls into the latter category in the way that (may God forgive me for the trite comparison) Mr. Dickens novels do. Analysis can be practiced on such works, but what is the point? The reading, or in the this case, the seeing and hearing of them, is the totality of the experience, as there is little to debate or to reinscribe with the stylus of our own intellects (considerable, naturally).

The film takes up Mr. Turner later in life, near upon the death of his own father (and studio assistant) and follows his life, in fairly straightforward fashion, until his own death. We see Turner at work, but unlike many overly-flowery films that focus on the lives of artists, he is neither tormented overmuch, nor is he portrayed as the mere inspired prism through which his experience of the world is refracted. We see Mr. Turner within the landscapes that he translates, and they are digitally created to be ravishing, but rather than communicating a ravishment that serves to inspire, they focus us instead on the singular love Turner had for seeing, for observing closely, and for staking out points of view. There is little that separates such sequences from many conventional films about artists, except that Mr. Turner is not typical, and does not communicate his love for many things conventionally. Neither is he a blackguard, a rogue, or a scoundrel, though – in fact, he is often very cute and lovable, precisely because he is not so in any conventional sense. His love of the world, and the things within, only unfolds gradually, through our observation of Mr. Spall’s keen performance, which discloses psychology without psychologizing, and makes Mr. Turner an enigma without posing any questions to be answered or problems to be debated. He is a man unlike others in his time, place, and profession, and the film gives us enough detail to perhaps posit why this may be, without really caring why it is so. Why does he deny the existence of his children? Why does he travel incognito? What drives him to adopt an unusual style that, while avant-garde, is not openly oppositional? How does he manage to seem both uneducated and taciturn while also being held in esteem as a wit and as a man with opinions both worthy and respectable? What lies in his heart? What does he truly care about? He is portrayed as both a workman-like professional and as someone capable of being transported by visions; as a sharp critic of his contemporaries and also a defender of tradition. He is, in short, like many outsiders, a man who can both inhabit his specific time and place in history and also see outside of it, and himself, to the absurd nature of this habitation. Timothy Spall, giving a tour de force that is of the quiet, incremental variety, must be given full credit here; rarely has an artist been portrayed with such depth and humanity.

The film itself, as I previously mentioned, and like most of Mr. Leigh’s output, is well observed. (Indeed, although I hate to use such an overused phrase, the early part of the film is sumptuous in the level of its period detail). I have tended to like Mr. Leigh’s films when they are of the darker, more modern variety, but it is often hit-or-miss. Sometimes, as in his early TV features (such as Spall’s first collaboration with Leigh, 1982’s Home Sweet Home) or in Naked (from 1993), the verisimilitude provided by Leigh’s famous working methods provide realities and truths that are harrowing and heartbreaking; other times (as in 1996’s Secrets and Lies), the films feel like huge agglomerations of mannerisms, tics, and characterizations that can veer toward the patronizing or stereotyped. Mr. Turner follows neither path; indeed, it is gentle and self-effacing. It does feel a little long, especially in the last third, which is mostly devoted to Turner getting old and traveling back and forth to his common-law wife (Mrs. Booth, whose name he takes) in declining health. There is little reason that we must stick with the artist until death simply because death makes for a natural ending point to the “story.” All the same, the final shots of the film are penetrating, and sad. Here, we see the man in full, not in the sense of warts and all, or in the sense of good and bad, but instead as a star, a light-bringer who, despite his gruff style and sometimes irresponsible interpersonal behavior, brought meaning and purpose to others. To the one he shone upon, the gift brought happiness and the purpose of life was reinforced; to the one he turned away from, he bequeathed sorrow and loneliness. The artist, more than any other figure, is tasked with the burden of being “true” to him or her self. We begin, by the end of the film, to see that perhaps for Turner this is the key to his behavior, both the positive and the negative. The coda of the film is deep in the best possible way – again, it simply shows that the gift was also a curse, and that knowing such a man was both a pleasure and deeply painful. The sun shines, that is its task; it makes visible and does not judge what it illuminates. It is objective – not impartial, or fair, or balanced. It is prior to such categories. “The sun is god” – but it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum (2014)

Ugg, if there is one genre I tend to detest, it is the bio-pic. Why so, you life loving types might ask? Well, settle onto my knee, sonny, and grump along with me for a moment. First of all, most of the time we are being told a story we already know, so there are rarely any surprises involved. This might be tolerable if the subject were portrayed in an interesting fashion. As it is, most often the subjects of such films are slavishly worshiped, great golden men (and rarely women) held aloft for us to cheaply revel in the glow they reflect, all of us puny crudmuffins now suddenly reawakened to our shared “humanity.” Ah yes, who doesn’t want to shave a piece of self-esteem off the ol’ block of the less than flinty Mahatma, or perhaps even J.C. himself? I dare you, my friends, to look back through biographical films made even in just the last twenty years. Will you find a critical viewpoint? Will you find anything that not only makes you reconsider what you knew, but even keeps you awake? I think not. Tedium and self-righteousness do not a happy pairing (nor a happy viewer) make.

Here endeth the preamble-by-way-of-explanation-hinting-at-an-apologia for seeing, and thus commenting on, The Imitation Game. I was convinced to see it by someone who shall remain nameless. But, lo, good news – it is not bad! Yes, I already knew the story of Alan Turing (spelling his name like a proper Alan should). And yes, there is more than a little basking and past-patronizing in the mix. What makes this good, then? Well, it is very well directed. The structure of the film is more sophisticated than most, moving around the chronology in a way that makes emotional impact, and the overall design of the film (the sets, the costuming, the mise-en-scene and camerawork) evokes the era without italicizing or winking. The performances are also good, and Cumberbatch does make a very sympathetic Turing, even when at his prickliest. Perhaps it is Turing’s outsider nature, and his tragic end, that made me more sympathetic than normal. There is plenty to dislike, but more in the mode of “oh, must you, really?” (disappointment) rather than “cripes!” (sigh, eyes rolling). The film often slips into Hollywood heart-string contrivances – as in the cryptographer who, at the first message successfully decoded, discovers his brother is on the ship they are about to let sink (rather than tip their English hands to the Germans). Punches are thrown, yells are exchanged, “Who are you/we to play God?!?” etc. Such things feel like the screenwriter trying to gin up some teacup tempest dramatics in stiff-upper-lipsville. A poor score mars the film as well – then again, ninety percent of scores are poor and unnecessary. Oh well. Yes, this is a positive review.

Three stars out of five