Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Or Oscar for Ms. Blanchett!

Perhaps getting ahead of myself. I headed into this preview screening at the BFI full of trepidation. Would Todd Haynes mess it up, overstylising his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950s lesbian-themed novel, lavish on his box of cinematic tricks and miss the wood for the trees? Thankfully, No. Haynes hits it out of the park, as we used to say, back in the old neighbourhood. That neighbourhood was slightly north of Manhattan, seen here in all its sepia-toned loveliness, a time when men wore hats and women like Cate Blanchett's Carol wore gloves. And what gloves! Those gloves, so artlessly left on the counter of Therese's (Rooney Mara) department store counter, prove so alluring that she sweeps them up, takes them home and eventually posts them to their owner who promptly reciprocates by phoning her on the shop floor and inviting her to lunch. As you do. And so it begins.

Their romance, teased out through home visits, car journeys to New Jersey and eventually a rather unexpected road trip to Chicago (!) brings the older, wealthier Carol into the orbit of the younger, breathlessly naive Therese, so green she doesn't know how to order at a restaurant, much less define her sexual identity. Blanchett's indefatigable tranche of meaningful looks, hair tosses and the occasional pat on the shoulder is a delight to watch. One envies Therese, for how can she resist?

Despite having read the book many years ago, I didn't recall many plot details and agonised over how the story would play out, as Carol is put through the wringer by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who is keen to punish her for leaving him and uses their daughter as payback. Carol and Therese's relationship alters as the balance of power shifts, and it is also a lovely touch to see that Carol has an ex-lover who remains a loyal friend, so rare in mainstream films that isolate lesbian relationships. I was enthralled, my one gripe being the sex scenes seemed a bit porny, as seen through a male lens. Generally, though, the tone of the film is just right, not so in thrall to period detail that it forgets the characters or their very powerful emotions.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Finally, finally, finally I caught up with this film depicting the struggle of British women for the vote some 100 years ago, and by an accident of timing, on US Election Day of all days. I have been prepping by reading up on Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical activist branch of the famous family. Ironically, Sylvia does not appear in the film, and Emmeline's much vaunted appearance (courtesy of the venerable Meryl Streep) amounts to one striking speech and then a quick getaway.

A curious beast, this Suffragette. The lead character is a fictionalised launderess in Bethnal Green, played by Carey Mulligan, who is radicalised both by her grinding poverty and social inequities, as well as her associations with suffrage agitators, including Mrs. Pankhurst. Making a working-class woman the protagonist is to be applauded, but in fact, Mrs. Pankhurst was not at all interested in class struggle and specifically withdrew her WSPU organisation from the East End. It was her daughter Sylvia who was devoted to getting the East End involved in the struggle, who made common cause with the nascent Labour Party and who had a life-long intersectional political outlook. Her acknowledgement in Suffragette is limited to one comment by a male character that "Even Sylvia doesn't approve of the violence." No, she didn't, but she had a lot more to offer than that.

Well, what is in the film? Several real-life suffragettes, including the martyred Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who flits in and out of the film, arriving in a prison scene and departing via her confrontation with the King's horse at the Derby. In between, we learn precisely nothing about her politics, her life, her reasoning. Nothing except that she hands Maud a book she has received from the suffragette/pharmacist Edith Ellyn (a delightfully arch Helena Bonham Carter), who I am intrigued to learn was a real person. Must read up on her.

While I got fired up watching the women venting their spleen by smashing shop windows in Oxford Street and blowing up pillar boxes, I felt there wasn't nearly enough depiction of this in the film, especially as it spends no time discussing their politics, perhaps reasoning that "votes for women" is self-explanatory. But, it isn't, as the split between the Pankhursts makes evident. Votes for which women? In the end, we are left with a dignified procession for Davison and a scrolling list of countries granting the right to women. The film feels very much like an exercise designed to be used as a teaching tool about equality. This may also explain the downplaying of the violence experienced by the protesters on the streets as well as in the prisons. There is only one depiction of force-feeding, suffered by Maud. While it is awful, it is nowhere near as harrowing as that shown in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, for example. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted that 12A rating.

The film's heart is clearly with the downtrodden women suffering degradation and belittlement at the hands of violent husbands (Anne-Marie Duff's Violet bears the brunt of this depiction) and sexual harassing bosses (Maud's intervention in this regard is curiously underplayed). It could have been much, much more.