Suffragette

In century-ago London, women are getting angry. They want the right to vote but it is not forthcoming. They make noise. They create chaos. They get attention.

Suffragette, a grim tale of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and her cohorts, shows the actions taken to get government leaders to acknowledge their demands. When Maud witnesses suffragettes throwing rocks to break store windows, she gets fired up and joins in.

She works in a laundry, where she and other female coworkers are subject to verbal and physical abuse by their male bosses. These men are not happy with her activism. She’s married with a young son at home. But her involvement in the cause leads to the breakup of her family and, ultimately, incarceration. (Ben Whishaw is Mr. Watts.)

While the film is inspired by real-life events, most of the characters including Maud Watts are fictional. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) is a real person who is the leader of the movement. Because Pankhurst lives her life in hiding, Streep’s presence in the movie is fleetingly brief. Other women in the cast include Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Natalie Press and Romola Garai.

Like certain other period films, Suffragette is generally devoid of color. Clothing is mostly black and white, settings are dark and poorly lighted and sepia tones are occasionally employed by director Sarah Gavron. (The film was written by a woman, Abi Morgan.)

It’s always great to see Brendan Gleason in a movie; in Suffragette he’s a police inspector who has several conversations with Maud. He’s concerned that the movement will generate a martyr, perhaps from the hunger strike Maud stages while in prison. In the end, it is a martyr who becomes a touchstone for change in women’s suffrage in the U.K.

Sadly, Suffragette disappoints on many levels. The second-class status of women is plainly stated but the depths of anguish this condition causes in not deeply explored. Compared to, say, Norma Rae or Selma, Suffragette fails to build empathy for those who are beaten down. Feminists may experience strong emotional connections to these characters, but it’s likely a general audience will not.

Then again, I am a male. As Maud Watts points out, half the people in the world are female. I found the storytelling less than compelling but, hey, women sometimes have different viewpoints from men. (Editor’s note: “sometimes?????”) Certainly, women’s rights is an important issue, but I call Suffragette a nice try that falls short.

Les Miserables

Les Misérables has been a beloved musical stage play for over two decades and now it is a musical movie. Let us consider Les Miz, the movie.

It’s good, but not quite great. The musical performances—bravely sung live by the performers during the actual filming—range from top notch to merely passable. Likewise, the songs themselves range from magnificent to tedious. There are magic moments in the music, to be sure. But not every song sparkles.

The cast includes formidable talent, including Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Amanda Seyfried as Cossette. Hathaway is the best supporting actress frontrunner for her heart-tugging performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Another highlight is the Jackman/Crowe vocal duet/duel on “Confrontation.”

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter handle the needed comic relief song “Master of the House” nicely. But their respective comic performances in movie musical Sweeney Todd were more effective, partly due to funnier source material.

Special mention must be made of newcomer Samantha Barks as Éponine. She is not only a great vocalist (a winner of a TV talent competition in Britain a few years back), but also has a strong onscreen presence. Look for big things for this woman.

The production of Les Misérables is big with a huge cast (singers and non-singers). Many of the settings are also big, though some are way too obviously computer-generated. The film’s finale is a stirring panoramic scene that closes the film on a strong emotional note.

Expectations have been running high for this movie. Some are met, but not all. Not hardly.