Suffragette, Carey MulliganCinema’s efforts to dramatize major social upheavals are always somewhat problematic, either focusing too wide, so that the viewer doesn’t adequately relate to individual participants’ challenges, or too narrowly, pulling their struggle out of the necessary context. Despite the predictability of some elements in its story, Suffragette (trailer), achieves a pretty good balance between background and foreground. The movie was directed by Sarah Gavron, with a screenplay by Abi Morgan.

By 1912, many decades of asking politely for the vote and expanded rights has achieved nothing for British women. Finally, their leader Emmeline Pankhurst declares, “deeds not words,” ushering in a new era of militancy, including bombs in post boxes. In part this new tactic is necessary because government and media collude to keep the suffragette’s demands quiet. No one knows the extent of the movement or public sympathy for it, and government wants to keep it that way. We see male officials fretting about the situation, but the film mostly shows “ordinary women” whose lives have become unbearably suffocating. Some of them are torn by the choices they have to make, while others have moved beyond doubt and are determined to grab the government’s attention, no matter the consequences.

The movie is fortunate in the actors selected for these foreground roles. Carey Mulligan is, as ever, perfect as Maud Watts, a young mother who’s worked in a Dickensian laundry since childhood and becomes involved with the movement by chance; Anne-Marie Duff is a true believer who has to reconsider; Helena Bonham Carter and Natalie Press have left doubt in the dust. (Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister of Britain during the height of the suffragette movement, which he opposed.)

The government brings in a Special Branch investigator, played by Brendan Gleeson, to track the women’s movements, and he zeroes in on Watts, thinking she may crack. Meryl Streep makes a cameo appearance as Pankhurst, and of course it would have been great to see more of her, but that would have drawn light away from the everyday women who ultimately had to say to themselves, enough.

British women received partial suffrage in 1918 and full suffrage a decade later. “While nobody—least of all Maud—supposes that the vote will solve everything, it will at least be a start,” said A.O. Smith in the New York Times. As a scroll at the end of the movie attests, worldwide acceptance of women’s suffrage is still incomplete and, for many, the start hasn’t yet started.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 72%; audiences 74%.

It would be difficult not to compare this movie with Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, which I reviewed yesterday. Both are about young women standing up for their beliefs at the risk of their lives. Sophie Scholl was the more moving, both because she was a real-life person and because her beliefs were so well articulated in the face of the inevitable penalty. In Suffragette, the possibility, if not the certainty, of death was present and discussed. It is the more cinematic experience, with the lovely recreation of 1910 London, the grim laundry, and more women’s stories, which increase its universality. More than a hundred years later women around the world can identify with at least aspects of the economic, occupational, legal, sexual, and other inequalities these women collectively suffered.

Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd, Carey MulliganPeople who love the classics, 19th century romance, the beauty of rural England, and juicy costume dramas should be lining up to see the new movie version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd (trailer), starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, and Michael Sheen. The casting is practically perfect, especially Mulligan in the lead and Sheen as the frustrated middle-aged suitor William Boldwood. Sturridge may be a little too pretty as the dashing Sergeant Troy, though many of Troy’s best scenes have been truncated, denying him the opportunity to become a more fully realized character.

As you may recall, in Hardy’s novel, Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is a headstrong young woman with a habit of rejecting marriage proposals: “What do I need a husband for?” She inherits a large farm and sets about managing her fields, animals, and workers. One of these is Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), who, as Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review notes, “is as unfellable as his name suggests” and saves Bathsheba’s bacon—or mutton—on more than one occasion.

But the course of true love never runs smooth and whom she will pick to marry is a lingering question that held my interest throughout, despite having read the book and having seen two previous dramatizations (the classic 1967 film with Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, and Alan Bates and the 1998 Granada Television one). Kudos to Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls for preserving the best of Hardy.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 79%.


Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan, David Hare, Skylight

Bill Nighy & Carey Mulligan in Skylight

If Britain’s National Theatre Live version of David Hare’s remounted play Skylight, comes to a movie theatre in your area, don’t miss it! It’s a live performance filmed last summer, and, unlike the live opera shown in movie theaters, it isn’t “live, live.” But it isn’t just a camera set up in the back of the theatre, either. There are wonderful closeups of the three actors, and given who the actors are, you want to catch every nuanced facial muscle.

Carey Mulligan plays a 30ish woman (her first stage role), Kyra Hollis, who teaches in what is apparently a rather desperate London school and lives in rather minimalist circumstances in a British public housing flat, of a type familiar from U.K. crime shows. She’s visited by a young man—played briefly and brilliantly by Matthew Beard—who is the son in a family she once lived with. The young man urges her to return to try to help his father, who he says is lost in grief and rage over his wife’s death a year before. The son departs, and the father arrives.

Played flawlessly by Bill Nighy, the father is a successful restaurateur for whom Kyra once worked, and the sparring between the two over why she left his home and her work, the new life she’s constructed, and what was and is between them carries the rest of the play. When it was first produced in 1995, Skylight won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. Many funny moments. Tears, too.