How the vote was won
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