REVIEW: “Suffragette”

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suf·fra·gette (/səfrəˈjet/) noun • historical

a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest.

That definition is true yet in no way does it adequately define the women and the movement they sparked in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Great Britain the suffragette movement became a force sometimes blurring the lines between lawful and militant protesting. Militant groups such as the WSPU led by Emmeline Pankhurst went from picketing, protesting, and hunger strikes to arson and bombings. While their tactics may have sometimes crossed the line, the rights they fought for were important and deserved. It was a complex time.

“Suffragette”, the new film from director Sarah Gavron, sets itself in this period and seeks to tell the story of passionate women standing up for their right to vote. But movies like this can be tricky. When you have a wealth of rich historical source material you automatically have a story to tell. It also offers a chance to deliver a powerful message. Movies have often stumbled when trying to balance these two creative opportunities.

The story is told through predominantly fictional characters but with a few historical figures included. Instead of telling a specific historical account, writer Abi Morgan creates several characters and reveals that period through their eyes and their experiences. The always absorbing Carey Mulligan serves as our main lens. She plays Maud Watts a wife and mother who also works long, strenuous hours as a laundress.

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It’s London in 1912. The suffragettes have only begun to make waves. Maud first witnesses the movement through street speakers and storefront vandalism. But her interest is mainly influenced by the inequalities she experiences at her workplace. She is also encouraged by the infectious enthusiasm of her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud becomes more involved as she meets inspirational women like Helena Bonham Carter’s Emily and Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst.

Wisely, Gavron and Morgan don’t make Maud’s decisions easy. We get a compelling internal struggle and there is a constant wrestling with the potential consequences of going too far. The decisions are made even more difficult by her unsupportive husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the thoughts of being separated from her young son. Add to that the dogged pursuit of the government assigned Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the movie progresses that struggle evolves in a way that is very organic and satisfying.

The character and the struggle mainly works thanks to Mulligan. This is such an understated and subdued performance that plays in perfect sync with the character. She skillfully articulates every feeling and raw emotion. It’s no glamorous role. Mulligan sports a tired and worn face and she often expresses a convincing sense of physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s impressive watching her transition from a woman sadly content with the hand she has been dealt in life to a woman driven to action by that very same hand. It’s a fine performance.

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Then there is Meryl Streep. In a bit of promotional manipulation you would think Streep has a significant role. Actually she does not. It’s basically a glorified cameo. It’s almost as if they were positioning her for the obligatory Oscar nomination she gets every year (apparently no one feels “Ricki and the Flash” is going to do it for her). She’s not bad here, but there is nothing to her small appearance that stands out either.

Where “Suffragette” stumbles is in the omission department. The film looks at Maud’s life and tells her story well. But at the same time it wants to represent an important historical struggle and does so in broad strokes. Much of the struggle is thinly represented namely the motivations behind voter suppression and the political manipulation and posturing. So much in this area could have been explored. Instead we just get highlights. There is also the ending which is fine in concept but came sudden and abrupt.

“Suffragette” dances in numerous shades of gray both in the actions of the women shown in the film and in the film’s opinion about them. But it certainly doesn’t waver in its message about the plight of women during a time that wasn’t that long ago. Regardless of any hiccups, the film deals in powerful and important themes and does so in a way that can’t be ignored. There is such a great sense of time and place and falling into the life of Maud is effortless for us. It also helps to have a great performance by Carey Mulligan – one that could easily earn her a nomination come Oscar time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

“Les Miserables” – 4 STARS

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I’m not a fan of musicals. Never have been, never will be. Now there are one or two that I guess I could say I like, but as a whole it is one of my least favorite genres. So why would I think for a minute that I would like Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables”? Well as suprising as it may sound, I liked “Les Miserables” a lot and if not for its mildly sluggish pacing leading up to the final act I would have gone as far as to call it a great film. Releasing a movie like this today would seem like a risk. Modern movie fans pour money into lame raunchy comedies and brainless rom-coms so it was refreshing to see “Les Miserables” reach a wide audience. The film has a lot to offer. Just as long as you prepare yourself and know what you’re going to get.

For the few that don’t know, “Les Miserables” is French writer Victor Hugo’s classic novel from 1862. In the 1980s a musical theater version of the novel opened and became a worldwide success and remains so to this day. Now Hooper, the Oscar winning director of “The King’s Speech”, tackles the ambitious task of bringing the stage version to the big screen. Now when I call this a musical I mean it in the fullest. There may be five or six short spoken lines in the entire film. The bulk of the story is told through song and the emotional performances from the cast. It concerned me going in but after a brief mental adjustment I was connected to the flow of the narrative.

The story begins in 1815 and follows Jean Valijean (Hugh Jackman) who we see released from prison after serving a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. After being moved by the compassion of a priest, Valijean breaks parole and heads off to start an honest life serving God under a new identity. This infuriates Officer Javert (Russell Crowe) who becomes obsessed with tracking him down. The movie jumps ahead, making stops at different time periods in early 19th century France. Valijean becomes a mayor and businessman, Javert a promoted inspector, and we are introduced to several other people who cross their paths.

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There’s no need in going further into the story. I’ll save that for the movie but I will say that its an interesting look at everything from poverty to patriotism, from redemption to devastation. It takes place during a tumultuous time in French history and it translates very well on screen. The story navigates through the many hardships, tragedies, and inequalities of that era with an amazing sense of authenticity. Much of that is thanks to the sharp collaborative screenplay but a lot is due to the incredible period detail that we see throughout the entire film. There’s a real sense of place throughout the movie which was essential to my experience.

But enough of that right? This is after all a musical so I’ve got to get into the singing. Hugh Jackman was quite good in my eyes. I know some have felt that the part overpowered him but I didn’t see it. I thought some songs were better than others but his physical performance complemented his voice perfectly and I loved what he was doing on screen. Russell Crowe has received the brunt of the criticism when it comes to the singing but I’m going to defend him…well, kinda. I don’t think he’s as bad as many are saying. In fact, some of the songs nicely fit both him and his character. But I have to say there are moments where his voice clashes with the scene. For example, a few of the one-on-one singing conversations between him and Jackman just sound odd. A lot has to do with the songs themselves but some of it is that Crowe simply sounds off. But Crowe does have some good moments and his physical performance is fantastic.

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I also have to mention Ann Hathaway as a poor unemployed mother who has to resort to prostitution in order to send money back to care for her sick young daughter. Hathaway is brilliant and no doubt she was the star of the show for me. While she doesn’t have a big role, every scene she’s in is emotionally charged and heartbreaking. And her voice is simply beautiful. The best scene in the entire movie is her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream”. I usually get tired of Hooper’s insistence on putting the camera right in the face of his actors. But in this scene he knows he’s capturing something special. Hathaway’s brokenness, her tears, her anguish are all vividly captured as she sings this heart-wrenching song. This is an Oscar worthy performance.

There are also fun performances from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a crooked, pick pocketing husband and wife. And I was surprised at the singing chops of Eddie Redmayne. He has a pretty meaty role and never flinches. I was also very impressed with Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried. Both young ladies have lovely voices and I appreciated the way they poured everything into their characters. There were several other small but great cast members particularly some really strong child performances. It’s hard not to like this ensemble Hooper was able to put together.

“Les Miserables” does bog down during the buildup to its finale. For most of the film I was completely involved and for the movie to do that to a non-musical kind of guy like me is quite an accomplishment. But as Redmayne and company prepare their rebellion I felt myself drifting. Things start to feel repetitious and monotonous. But then in a snap of a finger the movie picks back up and rolls right through to its powerful and completely satisfying finale. In fact, I think “powerful” and “completely satisfying” are good descriptions of this movie as a whole. Sure it’s Oscar bait and I know it has disappointed some people, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this picture. This isn’t normally my cup of tea, but when a film is well made, well acted, and tells a good story I’m all in whether they’re singing the lines or not.

“DARK SHADOWS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.

The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.

But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.

After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.

One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.

Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.

“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.