How the vote was won

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

n 1893, women were granted vot­ing rights in New Zealand; a year later, South Aus­tralia fol­lowed suit, and in 1902 women were granted the right to vote through­out Aus­tralia. Un­til a ti­tle at the very end, no men­tion is made of th­ese trail­blaz­ing an­tipodeans in Suf­fragette, a new Bri­tish film that cel­e­brates the brav­ery of some of the women who de­fied the au­thor­i­ties and who be­came what to­day we would call ter­ror­ists.

The events cov­ered in Abi Mor­gan’s screen­play be­gin in March 1912, when Em­me­line Pankhurst, leader of the Bri­tish suf­fragette move­ment, calls on her fol­low­ers to rebel against the gov­ern­ment. This in­cite­ment ini­tially leads to the break­ing of shop win­dows in the West End, fol­lowed by the de­struc­tion of let­ter­boxes with ex­plo­sives and, most rad­i­cally, blow­ing up the coun­try home of David Lloyd Ge­orge, who was chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer at the time. (For­tu­nately, it was un­oc­cu­pied.)

As we’ve seen time and again, one man’s ter­ror­ist is an­other’s free­dom fighter. Just imag­ine if a well-or­gan­ised group, in open op­po­si­tion to to­day’s gov­ern­ment poli­cies, de­stroyed the home of the fed­eral trea­surer with a bomb. Yet in the 21st cen­tury, few if any would deny the right of women to vote, even if they are de­nied equal pay for equal work.

Suf­fragette seeks to re­mind con­tem­po­rary view­ers about th­ese things and to ex­plain just how out­ra­geous the at­ti­tude of the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment was at the time and how brave were the women who, of­ten at great cost to them­selves, op­posed it. To achieve this, Mor­gan’s screen­play of­fers us a char­ac­ter with whom we eas­ily can iden­tify — not a real per­son but a com­pos­ite who rep­re­sents a typ­i­cal suf­fragette. This is Maud Watts (Carey Mul­li­gan), a 24year-old laun­dry worker, mar­ried to Sonny (Ben Whishaw), a de­cent man who works in the same laun­dry but who — un­sur­pris­ingly at the time — has con­ser­va­tive views about the rights of women, in­clud­ing his wife.

At first, Maud is a rather hor­ri­fied wit­ness to suf­fragette acts of de­fi­ance against the state, but she agrees to at­tend a suf­fragette meet­ing with her friend Vi­o­let (Anne-Marie Duff) and the ex­pe­ri­ence forces her to con­sider her po­si­tion. She

Suf­fragette; is also en­raged by the preda­tory at­ti­tude of her boss, Nor­man (Ge­off Bell), to­wards his fe­male staff, es­pe­cially to­wards Vi­o­let’s young daugh­ter. To the dis­may of Sonny, she be­gins to be­come more in­volved in suf­fragette ac­tiv­ity, es­pe­cially af­ter she meets Edith El­lyn (Helena Bon­ham Carter), a phar­ma­cist with a sup­port­ive hus­band. Edith sees her role as that of a sol­dier. A pep talk from Pankhurst her­self (Meryl Streep, im­pres­sive in just one scene) in­creases Maud’s mil­i­tancy and, de­spite a spell in prison, the threat­ened loss of her son and the bale­ful warn­ings of po­lice in­spec­tor Arthur Steed (Bren­dan Glee­son), Maud vows to stop at noth­ing in her sup­port for the cause.

While much of this is in­spi­ra­tional, and Mul­li­gan con­vinc­ingly de­picts the char­ac­ter’s trans­for­ma­tion from com­pli­ance to ac­tivism, the film is dis­ap­point­ing in some of its de­tails. Di­rec­tor Sarah Gavron’s ap­proach to the ma­te­rial is at times pre­dictable and un­ad­ven­tur­ous — al­most stodgy. And al­though the pro­duc­tion de­sign de­pict­ing Lon­don of just over 100 years ago seems ex­actly right, the di­rec­tor’s fond­ness for in­tru­sive hand­held cam­er­a­work con­stantly calls at­ten­tion to it­self, beg­ging com­par­i­son with a con­tem­po­rary faux-doc­u­men­tary style at odds with the pe­riod.

Suf­fragette is a wel­come re­minder that the pi­o­neer­ing mem­bers of the women’s move­ment were will­ing to go to any ex­tent — even loss of life — to achieve their goals, but it’s a pity that the film, in the end, feels a touch ma­nip­u­la­tive, the drama some­what forced and lines like “We’re half the hu­man race — you can’t stop us all” a bit pro­saic.

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the suf­fragette move­ment are glossed over with­out ex­am­i­na­tion, and you get the feel­ing that, while the film is quite de­cent, an op­por­tu­nity for some­thing out­stand­ing has been missed.

The Belier Fam­ily La Famille Belier was a hit in France a year ago and now, as The Belier Fam­ily, doubt­less will be pop­u­lar with au­di­ences look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing than the typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood of­fer­ings dur­ing the sum­mer. Based on a true story, it’s set on a farm where 16-year-old Paula (Louane Emera) lives with her par­ents, Gigi (Karin Viard) and Rodolphe (Fran­cois Damiens) and her younger brother, Quentin (Luca Gel­berg). Paula is the only mem­ber of the fam­ily who is not deaf-mute and, as a re­sult, she acts as their in­ter­preter, even be­ing obliged to ex­plain the de­tails of her mother’s vagi­nal in­fec­tion dur­ing a visit to a doc­tor (a scene that’s sup­posed to be funny).

The film’s es­tab­lish­ing scenes, as writ­ten by Vic­to­ria Be­dos and Stanis­las Carre de Mal­berg, and di­rected by Eric Lar­ti­gau, are not en­cour­ag­ing. The in­trigu­ing set-up is han­dled with a leaden touch, and Damiens and — es­pe­cially — Viard are en­cour­aged to act as though deaf­mutes are in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled.

For­tu­nately, things pick up be­fore too long. Rodolphe is stand­ing for mayor of the dis­trict, and there are some amus­ing scenes on the cam­paign trail and his en­coun­ters with his smug and pa­tro­n­is­ing ri­val. More im­por­tant is the jour­ney taken by Paula, whose life changes when her mu­sic teacher, Mon­sieur Thomas­son (Eric El­mosnino), dis­cov­ers that she has a fine singing voice and en­cour­ages her to per­form a duet at the school con­cert with hand­some Gabriel (Il­ian Ber­gala).

The scene in which Paula’s par­ents and brother at­tend the con­cert is beau­ti­fully han­dled, with the sound­track elim­i­nated so that we, like Paula’s fam­ily, are un­able to hear how good she is. It’s fol­lowed soon af­ter­wards by a ten­der se­quence in which Rodolphe “lis­tens” to his daugh­ter singing by plac­ing his hand on her throat.

Ul­ti­mately, then, La Famille Belier evolves into a feel-good movie in which an ami­able young woman dis­cov­ers that she’s pos­sessed of a nat­u­ral tal­ent. It seems a pity, though, that sev­eral scenes seem ob­sessed with mat­ters sex­ual, in­clud­ing some ex­tra­ne­ous ref­er­ences to Quentin’s very per­sonal dif­fi­cul­ties in achiev­ing in­ter­course with Paula’s best friend (again, sup­pos­edly funny).

Emera, who was dis­cov­ered by the di­rec­tor af­ter she reached the fi­nals of a pop­u­lar singing con­test on French tele­vi­sion, is a nat­u­ral tal­ent, and her re­laxed and gen­uinely ap­peal­ing per­for­mance is the film’s great­est strength. Her big scenes in the sec­ond half of the film just about com­pen­sate for some of the short­com­ings ear­lier on.

Carey Mul­li­gan, left, and Anne-Marie Duff in

be­low, a scene from the French film

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