Monthly Archives: October 2015

E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War – House of Illustration

House of Illustration: Artwork from The Shepard Trust archive. Reproduction: Punch Ltd.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the proposed four year commemoration programme for the centenary of the First World War has rather ground to a halt. Once Paul Cummins’s incredible display of ceramic poppies was packed away, everything else went, well, all quiet about the Western Front. Perhaps, unlike the actual event, the remembrance programme really was ‘all over by Christmas’ 2014. But never fear, as the hundredth anniversary of the Somme campaign approaches, you can expect a flurry of related activities to acknowledge one of the most terrible and emotionally scarring periods the British Army ever experienced.

1915 may not be considered a particularly ‘sexy’ year in terms of battles, hence the relative silence this year, but the wonderful House of Illustration has snuck in a brilliant exhibition celebrating the Great War drawings of illustrator E. H. Shepard, most famous for being the visual creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. But Shepard was a regular contributor to Punch the satirical magazine long before he become associated with the honey-loving bear in the Hundred Acre Wood, and this exhibition recognises the anniversary of Shepard’s recruitment into the army where he became a serving officer in the Royal Artillery stationed in the Somme region and participating in a number of significant battles.

Fascinatingly, the House of Illustration not only brings together his satirical drawings, which continued to be officially published throughout the war, along with the accurate terrain sketches Shepard did for his unit which helped to position artillery fire. The ways in which illustrators contributed to the development of intelligence in the war is certainly understudied, and not something an art exhibition has ever fully covered before, particularly in a conflict that is seen as technologically driven and dominated by the inhumanity of mechanisation.

I’ve previously written about the development of aerial photography and how older technologies were being repurposed during this period, so to see this sit alongside the idea of a man and a sketchbook providing to-scale drawings of the Front to add to the available intelligence absolutely reinforces this notion of tradition and modernity meeting and adapting in this conflict. And through Shepard’s remarkable work, we also see the merger of art and function, with the sign text making the point that while you can see his drawings of a wood, perhaps, there is a ruler above it to indicate scale for application purposes (i.e. gauging gun range), but Shepard has also provided considerable detail in the shape of individual leaves. What this is doing is adding even greater nuance to our understanding of the experience of the war and how men responded to it.

Another more common response was satire and one of the mechanisms through which men coped was to find humour in their situation. From Trench newspapers to reviews and shows (which Shepard was involved with), satirising the people and circumstances of war was a key leisure activity and Shepard’s cartoons were at the forefront of this, published in Punch and other magazines. That stoical humour is one of the most interesting effects of war, demonstrating the extent to which men retained their humanity in the lengthy periods between engagements.

There is a long tradition in Britain of political satire dating right back to Hogarth’s stinging evocations of city life and morality in the eighteenth-century and the numerous newspaper cartoons lampooning politicians and events which followed in the nineteenth century. Shepard’s work on the First World War falls neatly into this category, so as well as seeing his work in the context of his overall development as an illustrator, it can also be viewed as part of this historic ritual of satirising important moments and people. Among his best work includes a cheeky picture of a tommy swathed in innumerable layers of clothes he’s been sent for Christmas which mocks the practice of sending gifts to men at the Front. The soldier is wearing about 5 shirts, huge mittens, furry boots and is smoking about 8 cigarettes and a pipe, all with a look of delight on his face. It’s a wonderful picture which really sets the tone for the warmth of Shepard’s images in this exhibition, never bitter but more of a knowing wink at the absurdity of their situation.

Another common concern among all servicemen was the supposed corruption at home and, as the conflict drew on, the seeming indifference of civilians to its outcome. Men frequently complain that while on leave they observe civilians being bored of the war, and one of Shepard’s works taps into this frustration by showing a cartoon strip of a rich looking man passing a newsboard every day. He expresses alarm at Zeppelin raids and then a modest delight at successful British counterattacks, he is pleased by a Russian victory but the final scene shows him collapsed entirely on the floor by the news of heavy taxation at home – Shepard is making the point that civilians can only be really engaged by news that actually affects them.

Throughout this exhibition, Shepard’s works sit alongside one another and there is a clear contrast between those done as pen sketches and his painted pieces, the latter being a little less effective than the delicacy of his ink work. Nonetheless it’s interesting to see how varied Shepard’s opportunities were for art throughout the war and, with over a hundred pieces presented here, the sheer volume he was able to produce is impressive, as well as watching his heavily shaded pen sketches becoming lighter and simpler as time passed. A few post-war pieces are included at the end show his development as an artist and see how this work paved the way for his eventual engagement with A. A. Milne.

The House of Illustration is probably one of the most consistent galleries in London, producing a number of excellent exhibitions since it opened, including those on Quentin Blake, Mac Connor and most recently the wonderful Ladybird book images. And here they’ve done it again with a sensitive and insightful exhibition about E H Shepard’s Great War experience. Not only have they opportunely seized on a quiet moment in the overall commemoration agenda to present these works which should mean it attracts the attention it deserves, but it genuinely offers a new perspective on a much studied conflict.

E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War is at the House of Illustration until 10 January. Tickets are £7 for adults (£7.70 with Gift Aid) and concessions are available.

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Steve Jobs – London Film Festival

Source: Universal Pictures

In the history of technology failure is as important as success, if not more so. What innovators and technicians learn when a product fails, and the drive it gives them to succeed the next time is immensely important. For too long historians of technology have only focused on key moments, the mileposts and markers of change that predicate a new age – the steam engine, the aeroplane, the nuclear bomb – as if somehow these things just pop into existence one day and revolutionise everything that has come before. But for every product that succeeds there have been thousands of failures that feed into the refining and redesigning of the next iteration. Steve Jobs, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival last night, takes you on that journey from product failure to eventual success, and showcases the ambition, ruthlessness and self-belief required to succeed.

Like Suffragette (LFF’s Opening Night Gala), Steve Jobs can be viewed in two ways; how valuable an insight does it give us into the times in which it’s set taking in the personalities, events and encounters it depicts, and, at a different level, what value does it have as technological film. Its story is grouped around three product launches, the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT cube in 1988 and ends with the iMac in 1998. The first failed and cost Jobs (Michael Fassbender) his position at Apple, ousted by the Board, after which he developed the NeXT cube which also tanked, both of which Danny Boyle’s film cleverly implies ultimately resulted in the success of the iMac and proved Jobs’s genius after 14 years. The story is far more than a tale of machines and the human element is added using Jobs’s contentious interactions with former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), colleague Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and the daughter he long refused to accept, Lisa.

There are many compelling things about this film but perhaps the most surprising given its subject matter is how theatrical it felt. Performed in three acts and with Aaron Sorkin’s famously wordy dialogue it felt like you were watching an elaborate play that cleverly builds the tension throughout, giving you explosive conversations in each act before building to a semi-resolution in the last. It doesn’t take us up to the present day or through the eventual consequences of Jobs’s victory, but carefully leaves you with the idea that the development of technology never ends, that for an innovator the launch of a new product is not the end of the process but the beginning of a new one. Having a day job in a Business School meant, for me, that the film’s notions of innovation management, product development and marketing were resonant and in many ways give a flavour of both the cut-and-thrust of business, as well as the excitement of working in developing fields.

Being a Danny Boyle film also means it also has his recognisable stamp in terms of the use of light, colour and cultural references, plus an effectively mixed soundtrack. Each section of the film is shot as if it belongs to its particularly era which gave it a docu-history effect that worked really nicely. Boyle also used a lot of backstage shots of lighting rigs and scenery, as well as the grand sweep of the auditoria used for the launches, which reinforced Sorkin’s theatre-like script. Peppered throughout we also get the sense of Jobs’s love of aesthetics with art and music in particular playing a huge role in explaining his preference for slinky design. He’s seen presenting his products to the world in the San Francisco Opera House where he conducts a conversation in the orchestra pit, describing himself as a conductor who ‘plays the orchestra.’ We also see him at the NeXT launch removing a bunch of flowers from beside the cube and replacing them with lilies which he has handpicked from a dinner table somewhere else in the building because the shot is more pleasing to him with a sleeker-shaped flower. These are all tiny touches or even background to the emotional dramas being played out effectively ‘up-stage’, but the consistency of the design and character actions is nicely realised.

Fassbender has already generated a considerable degree of Oscar buzz for this role and (unsurprisingly) it is entirely deserved. Jobs is not a likeable character, he’s rude, arrogant, condescending and often irascible but while those qualities could have made him entirely repellent, Fassbender offers so many layers of performance that you simultaneously begin to understand the kind of person Jobs had to be to succeed. The incredible self-belief and refusal to hear others, to see events from anything but his own perspective seem here as necessary evils that eventually lead to his success. The relationship with his daughter Lisa is also incredibly nuanced and while his behaviour seems cruel, Fassbender also contrasts this with his own buried feelings of parental rejection (Jobs was adopted), isolation and of just genuinely not understanding other people’s emotional responses and why they can’t put them aside.  He’s an incredibly intuitive actor who thoroughly embodies every character he plays which brings a rare level of intensity to the screen and here he punches out Sorkin’s dialogue with incredible conviction. So much so that given the hoo hah which accompanied the making of this film and Fassbender’s last minute sign-up, you wonder if it would have worked so well without him. He so dominates the screen that when he’s not there, you are just waiting for him to come back and in places Sorkin’s script feels overwritten because Fassbender can, and does, produce a single look that obviates the need for the next 10 lines of dialogue. So in less than a month that’s two astonishing Oscar-worthy performances, although I actually hope he gets recognised for Macbeth which just has the edge as a complete film.

There’s good support from Seth Rogan as Steve Wozniak, Jobs’s colleague and friend from the days they worked from their garage. The film also explores the fascinating relationship between these two men and doesn’t really take sides, so while Jobs comes off quite badly in their early scenes, during their major final confrontation we see the petty jealousy and longing for recognition that Wozniak has born for 14 years but was unable to achieve without the ambitious qualities Jobs possessed. Jeff Daniels, after a stint in Sorkin’s The Newsroom, plays the man who supposedly fired Steve Jobs from Apple after the failure of the Macintosh and the two play a cleverly directed scene set in 1988 as a Sculley-Jobs confrontation is interspersed with flashback scenes of the original rainy night emergency Board meeting where we learn who was really responsible for forcing that decision. Finally Kate Winslet is a constant presence as Joanna Hoffman who was Job’s Marketing Director and friend, although closer to a personal assistant / counsellor in this film. It doesn’t really explore their relationship or why she continued to work for someone so difficult or how reliant he was on her. Winslet’s accent didn’t seem to exist in the 1984 section but became more pronounced in the 1988 and 1998 sections but otherwise she is a very good support figure, almost part of the background but a constant presence and control.

On the red carpet of the LFF’s Closing Night Gala Michael Fassbender made the point that this film is not a biopic but a dramatisation, and one that compresses numerous events and relationships into 3 convenient slots. It is the nature of filmmaking that a lot will be left out and conversations imagined in order to give the story greater depth. In presenting all this information in an unconventional way, Boyle directs with energy and purpose, nicely capturing the emotional intensity and frayed tempers that would seem natural in the frantic minutes before a product launch, and it certainly seems fitting that an film about an inventor should have an innovative set-up. Arguably it’s a little too reverential towards the end but then with a sea of iphones taking pictures of the cast and Boyle on stage it’s hard to make a case against the impact of Jobs on modern technology. Some of the computer-talk may have gone over my head but the quality of the performances and the design make Steve Jobs compelling viewing. Most impressively, it’s a film that is absolutely right in its comments on the nature of technological development and the huge effort involved in developing those rare successes that just might go on to become a sensation.

Steve Jobs was shown at the London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1


Black Mass – London Film Festival

Depp

The gangster flick is one of cinemas oldest genres with its origins in the film noirs of the 1930s and 40s which set the template for many of the films we know today. Films like The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Key Largo and even Gilda have had a long legacy with their focus on the perpetrators of organised crime in America. Originally reliant on menacing character rather than overt violence, the implication of threat and perhaps a hammy punch or two were all the censors would allow, these films were incredibly moral with the good guys and bad guys getting the right ending.

And in the years since, while the films first became increasingly brutal with often graphic depictions of violence (think Scarface, Goodfellas or even Reservoir Dogs), they have graduated to presenting the gangster as a glamorous figure living in a world of power and respect, which recent films like Legend have done much to perpetuate. How refreshing then that Scott Cooper’s new film Black Mass which received its UK premiere at the London Film Festival this week may signal a return to depicting this world as grim, dangerous and non-aspirational, punctuated with moments of alarming violence that seem a far cry from the arty portrayals of recent years.

The story is a true one, that of the American gangster Jimmy ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp) whose growing dominance of Boston is depicted in three key stages in the 1970s and 80s, during which time he developed an ‘alliance’ with the FBI, nominally as an informant but actually in extracting information from the Bureau to neutralise his competitors. Bulger managed this through his relationship with John Connolly who grew up together in The Projects choosing different sides of the law. But when Connolly approached Bulger to work with the FBI to bring down the Mafia, it opened up a new world of prosperity and unchallenged dominance for both of them. Running alongside this, although not fully explored, is Bulger’s relationship with his Senator brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) who has a clear affection for his sibling if an ambiguous knowledge of his criminal activities. So Black Mass as well a biography is the story of the blurred boundary between crime and law enforcement where the allure of power and loyalty is far from black and white.

Coming to this with virtually no knowledge of Bulger it’s episodic style takes a little while to get into the story and piece things together, but you’re very quickly drawn into the this excellent no-frills gangster movie. It success comes through the intriguing characters that keep you engrossed as the sense of danger ebbs and flows throughout. Central to this story is actually Connolly (Joel Edgerton), Bulger’s childhood friend who returns to the neighbourhood as an FBI agent and hopes to use that relationship to entrap bigger criminals with information Bulger can supply on their activities. What transpires is much more interesting than a straightforward story of gangster-tuned-nark and it is Connolly who becomes attracted to and embroiled in Bulger’s affairs while simultaneously protecting him from his FBI colleagues. This is where Edgerton’s performance is particularly effective – this portrayal of a man whose head is turned by the excitement of the gangster’s world and the sense of complacent respect it gives him. You see him frequently walking into the FBI offices as though his is untouchable and fobbing his colleagues off to keep them at bay while he manipulates the ’intel’ he supposedly receives from his friend. In a key moment his increasingly fearful wife notes that he’s wearing a new suit and his stance has changed to a swagger, showing how he’s morphing into one of Bulger’s henchmen. Later in the film as the net closes in, Edgerton is also very good at portraying the desperation and fear that his web of deceit has created.

One of the great things about a film festival is how often you see work where actors have upped their game. I recently noted that Helena Bonham Carter had given her best performance in years in Suffragette and here her regular Burton-film collaborator Johnny Depp does the same as Bulger. Like Bonham Carter, it’s nice to see Depp in a straight acting role, no gimmicks, no quirks, no ticks, just a pure performance and it’s a great reminder of what he’s capable of. His Bulger is a constant seething presence in this film, almost always restrained, totally controlled so when he does lose his temper it’s terrifying. There are lots of classic gangster tropes to navigate – relationship with mum (see also Legend), relationship with son, volatile relationship with wife and beloved by the community that he protects by helping old ladies across the road with their shopping (again see Legend) – but Depp takes all of that and still makes you believe that his Bulger is a ruthless killer and convincing leader of a crime empire.

There’s good additional support for a host of famous faces including Kevin Bacon as Connolly’s FBI boss whose suspicions of Bulger increase as time goes on, as well as actors you’ll recognise from House of Cards and The Newsroom. In a small but interesting role Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger a local Senator who has an affectionate relationship with his brother and is one that retains a significant degree of ambiguity. With both men still alive it’s clearly difficult to imply that a former Senator would have knowledge or even engagement with criminal activities, but while Cumberbatch gives a good performance as the authority figure / family man, it does seem a shame that such a fascinating avenue remains unexplored – particularly as two brothers chose such completely different paths. It would also have added a stronger leg to the gangster-FBI-politician triangle which implies a level of corruption allowing all three to prosper.

Those tiny caveats aside this is an excellent film and one that successfully manages to convey just how grim that time was – Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the design decisions almost make this look as though it was filmed in the 70s and 80s. Best of all, it never looks glamorous which seems to be a departure from the usual style of modern gangster movies making this actually much grittier and believable because of it. It’s certainly a far cry from Legend (which admittedly had a slightly different agenda), and in fact has more in common with the look and feel of A Most Wanted Man Anton Corbijn’s similarly grainy adaption of John le Carre’s novel staring Rachel McAdam and Philip Seymore Hoffman. Black Mass is a great addition to the gangster film collection, packed with fantastic performances and a thoroughly engrossing story. Even the concluding notes will leave you with plenty of questions about the nature of corruption and justice. And who knows, this may signal a turning point in the presentation of gangster violence on screen ushering in a bleaker style that more accurately reflects the threat of that world.

Black Mass was shown at the London Film Festival. It opens nationwide on 27 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


High Rise – London Film Festival

High Rise

The idea that modernity and civilisation merely mask the baser animalistic purpose of man is a common theme in dystopian and apocalyptic drama. This notion that humanity is beholden to technology and consumerism has its origins in the early twentieth-century if not before in the industrial revolution. Many novels, films and films of novels have explored what would happen if suddenly society as we know ceased to exist due to failures of power and infrastructure, or disastrous climate events, and in these hellish projections everything breaks down into chaos, anarchy and inevitable violence as people turn on each other for scarce resources – that will for individual survival destroying anything and anyone in its path.

Ben Wheatley’s new film High Rise, premiered at the London Film Festival is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about a group of people living in an enormous tower block – a concrete edifice to modernity, convenience and power that quite literally keeps people on their own social level – working classes at the bottom and aristocracy at the top. In the penthouse is Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) known as ‘The Architect’ who created the building and seems to be somehow connected to its very existence – given his surname it’s not difficult to see who Ballard is modelling him on. And the various levels never engage with one another until one day Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into floor 25, right in the middle (naturally given his profession) and strikes up acquaintances with the attractive single mother upstairs (Sienna Miller), a working class family with a heavily pregnant mother (Elizabeth Moss) and gains access to The Architect himself. But power failures dog the lower floors and soon things begin to disintegrate; the lower floors want the mysterious Architect to answer for himself while those at the top will do anything to protect their privileges. Violence and chaos soon become the norm but what effects does this have on the middle classes and who will Dr Laing risk his life and sanity for?

High Rise is an extremely odd film, bizarre and quirky to reflect its novel origins, but after a very strong start loses its way in the middle for a good thirty minutes before clawing back to some kind of appropriate conclusion at the end. Now, I don’t mind odd, it’s always interesting to see films that try something new and by unsettling the audience make them think about the core themes and issues under discussion. What I did find frustrating about this film, however, was the initial introduction of several solid themes which never actually go anywhere because the director gets distracted by the chaos and violence for far too long, and for its own sake rather than as a means to reinforce the central points about class and the dangers of social segregation. Let me try to explain.

The film opens with Laing moving into his bare concrete space – it’s minimal, filled with gadgets and appears to represent a certain simple but expensive lifestyle, a bachelor pad. Out of the window the building is surrounded on all sides by a giant car park with rows and rows of cars denoting the number of people living in this enormous tower and, given its 1970s setting, the obsession with consumerism, functionality and style that seemed particularly pertinent to this era. This notion is reiterated by the in-house supermarket (how amazing to have supermarket in the middle of your building) which looks like something out of Stepford wives or a PopArt exhibition with perfectly placed packaging arranged in row upon row of mass produced goods. So what this should be setting-up, is some comment on the emptiness of a consumerist lifestyle and how violently this obsession with surface is utterly destroyed along with the social order. But for some reason, after initially implying all of this, Wheatley doesn’t follow it through.

The second interesting idea is the examination of class which forms the mini-society confined within the building. At the top is a fascinating penthouse suite owned by the Architect and his wife which is a fantastical place, decadent and luxurious in comparison to the sleek concrete of the middle floors and messy family homes of the lower orders. The Architect also has a huge outdoor garden on the roof which looks like something from a country manor complete with white horse, and in the centre is his futuristic foil-lined designing space where he pours over plans. The design here is fantastic and how the visual shape of the rooms and costume is used denote these differences is very clever, but other than revealing an equally repellent and selfish desire to survive at all costs, any comment that Wheatley is trying to make about the upper class residents is somewhat hazy. Even the use of reflective surfaces in several places as we see two of the characters through the top of a glass coffee table, and even better as Laing is herded into The Architects private lift which like a kaleidoscope shows our hero’s face reflected over and over – in a really insightful suggestion of humanity’s distortion – isn’t really picked up later in the film.

And finally we’re given hints at Laing’s different perspective on the crisis in the building, particularly as he’s the only one who ever seems to leave it and go to work. The other male residents talk about jobs but we only see them within the confines of the building itself. So Laing’s role as a doctor could have been used to give the audience hints either about the pettiness of the arguments within the high rise, relative to Laing’s experience in the wider world, or by contrast using Laing as means to imply that the whole world is infected with the same rotten core as the building, and his movement between the two is merely as carrier of the contagion. I don’t think either is really attempted here and instead these initial hints don’t ever resolve themselves into any tangible comment on the actions within the building and instead Laing merely retains his role as some kind of link without necessarily judging either side.

So with all these potentially fascinating things going on, it is a shame that midway through the film Wheatley turns away from this to focus entirely and rather gratuitously on the sex and violence that is always far too obviously the consequence of social breakdown. A bit of this is fine but you very quickly get the message that things are rapidly falling apart both in the infrastructure as parts of the high rise start to collapse and in the social order, thus people turn to looting and desperate couplings as rules give way to survival techniques. One of the particularly disappointing things about this section of the film is not just that it seems like a teenage boy’s fantasy that isn’t going anywhere, but that it clearly puts all the women in the film into the position of just objects and mothers. Now Ballard presumably has something to do with this but it’s still a shame to see the female characters reduced in this way when ultimately it has nothing to add to the things the audience has already perceived, or to the overall message of the film.

The performances on the whole are very good and it’s one of the saving graces of High Rise even when things go astray. Tom Hiddleston is very good as Laing, bringing an outsider’s distance to his performance which helps to explain his ability to flit between classes and means his ultimate decision makes sense. You never entirely sympathise with him either, Laing is not a likeable figure but Hiddleston retains his slightly corporate stance throughout wearing a suit even when order collapses and his sanity is never quite clear, which makes for an interesting performance. Jeremy Irons is an enigmatic figure as The Architect who is rather Wizard of Oz-like, initially a crazy inventor type who becomes increasingly sinister as things break down. Sienna Miller pretty much gives the same performance she did in Layer Cake and Alfie as the sultry party girl which is effective but doesn’t demand too much of her, while Elizabeth Moss is a discomposing figure as an expectant mother, much put upon by her philandering husband and seeing Laing as a potential escape. I couldn’t help feeling how interesting it might have been for Moss and Miller to swap roles and defy expectations.

High Rise has a lot going for it, not just in the performances and production design by Mark Tildesley but where it begins and ends well with lots of interesting things to say about the nature of humanity in chaos and the fragility of modern society, it does wander off the point for far too long in the middle which makes viewing frustrating. There is something to be said for films that push audiences out of their comfort zone, that challenge preconceived ideas of how films ought to progress but the tangents here are so prolonged and unnecessary that cutting that 30 minutes out of the film would vastly improve it. That way the very stylish beginning could fully realise its potential and mean that High Rise could be added to the canon of dystopian movies that warn of what life could so easily become.

High Rise was shown at the London Film Festival and no wider UK release date has been advertised. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

*Photograph: Allstar


Suffragette – London Film Festival

This is a film about betrayal – political, national and personal. And, as you’d expect, it’s also about sacrifice; sacrifice of family, of social standing, of safety, sacrifice of body and of life. The story of the Suffragettes may, a hundred years later, seem inevitable but in 1912-13, when women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote for 50 years, it was anything but. A right that nowadays is so fundamentally accepted by both sexes that many choose not to even exercise it is shown in Abi Morgan’s film to be incredibly hard-won.

It is of course London Film Festival time and in the next 10 days hundreds of films will be screened all over London, showing movies from across the world ranging from tiny indie flicks to major Hollywood premieres. This October is a big film month for me, for once pushing the theatre aside; it began with the incomparable Macbeth and will end with the simulcast Spectre on the 26th. In between is the Film Festival, probably my favourite time of year, which this year will include films such as Carol, Truth, Black Mass, High Rise and Steve Jobs.

But first up was Suffragette and you should not let the period setting fool you, this is brutal film that covers a short period in which women who campaigned for the right to vote turned to more militant tactics to get noticed. It was very much a man’s world before the First World War in industrial, political and domestic circles so even getting the media to take Suffragettes seriously and report their activity was difficult. This eye-opening film shows their attempt to increase awareness of their cause through increasingly violent tactics, building up to the famous death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby which, as this film argues, finally made women’s suffrage front page news.

But Morgan adroitly chooses a domestic approach to this story and while the famous figures of Davison and the Pankhurst waft through, it is ordinary working-class women in the East End who are the focus – a decision which both helps the audience to identify the contemporary relevance of this cause and veers away from the ‘great men of history’ approach which often wrongly ascribe significant change to the influence of a single individual. In this case, Emmeline Pankhurst was the inspiration but it was thousands of ordinary women of all classes who coordinated the protests. So we follow Maud, a fictional laundress, who finds herself accidentally drawn into the movement whose initial reluctance and fear of social humiliation amongst her community is contrasted by how much more radical she becomes than some of the original members.

Carey Mulligan gives a complex performance as the struggling Maud, and is particularly affecting when describing the real hardship women of her class experienced, without education and often working from the age of 7, enduring long hours, grinding poverty and unpleasant attention from their bosses. One of the most interesting things Mulligan shows us is just how long Maud has endured her second-class citizen role, clinging only to her happy family life with fellow-laundry worker husband (Ben Whishaw) and child, but that the movement gives her a clarity about her position and hope for something more. It’s incredibly moving at times as she sacrifices her happiness for the cause and there is a particularly heart-breaking moment that will have many audience members judging her decision before asking themselves tricky questions about whether they would do the same thing for such an important cause. But Mulligan shows us that Maud comes to her decisions organically, she’s not defiant from the start but almost surprises herself in becoming so passionately involved.

Maud is drawn to the cause by Violet played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff, who agitates in the laundry and remains unaffected by the derision of the other workers. We’re only given hints about Violet’s domestic life – an alcoholic husband, numerous children and continual moves – but Duff instils her with a believable sense of a woman who made her choice long ago but human enough to understand the costs for everyone. Duff and Mulligan are supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a local pharmacist (with a sympathetic husband) who coordinates the local campaigns at increasing cost to her own health. Bonham Carter here gives one of her best performances in years, played absolutely straight, and represents another kind of sacrifice women made to secure the vote. Romola Garai turns up far more briefly than the promotional material suggests as a wealthy politician’s wife, whose role seems only to be patronised by her husband to show that other classes of women wanted the vote too – in fact she only has slightly more screen time than Meryl Streep as Pankhurst in a ‘blink- and-you’ll-miss-her’ 30 seconds of screen time, she’ll probably win an Oscar for it though!

It’s not all about the women and we see three different sets of men. First Ben Whishaw has a decent stab as Maud’s disapproving husband, and is probably the only man in the film who you see is also filling a socially determined gendered role, expected to control his wife, support the family and make the decisions. There’s also the one-note bulling factory boss with an eye for young girls that emphasises the horrific lot of working women at this time, and finally there’s a coming together of politicians and some kinds of secret service / police group that gives interesting texture about how the Establishment tracked and attempted to undermine the Suffragettes, but tells us little about the expectations on powerful men in this period. Brendan Gleeson and Sam West appear in the latter group and both are excellent, but West in particular is criminally underused.

As you leave the cinema, the thing you remember most is the violence that these women endured. Early on after finding the Government has betrayed them, a Suffragette protest is broken up by the savage beating of women by policeman which is hard to watch. This leads to some equalling gruelling prison scenes that show further assaults on the dignity of the female prisoners and in a galling scene the force-feeding of a hunger-striker through the nose. This of course all leads up to the finale at the Derby where director Sarah Gavron builds the tension with bustling crowd scenes full of confusion before the fatal moment when a shocked silence descends as the newspaper cameras finally notice the Suffragettes.  And this nicely dissolves from our cast going off to the funeral to the real footage of Suffragettes honouring their cause behind the hearse.

So is this a good film or is it an important one? Of course as the first ever film about Suffragettes its importance is assured and with very little competition unless you count one of Alec Guinness’s many brief turns in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But it also stands as an interesting and carefully crafted film, full of multi-layered characters who just happen to be telling true stories. Refreshingly, there’s no sense of inevitability about it and although we know now how it eventually turned out, the precariousness of it comes through so well in this film. And as the final notes reveal it still took a World War to give women over 30 the vote and another 10 years before everyone got the right. I said at the beginning that Suffragette is a film about betrayal and sacrifice, and so it carefully weaves together a national political cause with the domestic treacheries and losses endured by the women involved. Suffragette stands then not just as symbol of a 100 year old movement but brings a very human tale of bravery and faith to remind us that sometimes a higher cause is worth fighting for.

Suffragette was shown at the BFI London Film Festival and the programme is


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