Suffragette is doing OK in UK cinemas. In my local cinema it was in the smaller screen with the Bond movie downstairs in the larger screen but there was still a healthy audience and I lost my preferred seat. My impression is that UK critics have been kinder to the film than those in North America (some of which have been very strange – though as Meryl Streep pointed out at the LFF Press Conference, many Americans won’t know what the title means). A note of caution however, the film was given a saturation release on over 500 screens and it fell 56% in its second week, suggesting that it might not have the ‘legs’ for a long run. The figures for the third weekend will be interesting. Suffragette has already made £5.8 million in the UK so does the box office trend mean much?
The positive about Suffragette is that audiences have the opportunity to see it all over the UK (and Ireland). For younger audiences it may prove to be an important history lesson at a time when there appears to be a feminist revival but the dreadful state of the UK school curriculum means that rates of political literacy are low and the events leading up to partial suffrage for women in the UK in 1918 are not necessarily widely known. The film has been well-promoted and overall it delivers. The central idea of constructing the narrative around the gradual consciousness-raising and politicisation of a single working-class character in an East London works well. Carey Mulligan as Maud is totally convincing. It’s great to have seen her in two British films this year and she is now perhaps the leading star actor of her generation in the UK. It’s also good to see all the creative opportunities for the likes of writer Abi Morgan, director Sarah Gavron and the many women in the crew as well as Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as fellow activists.
I’ve not heard too many people say that they ‘enjoyed’ Suffragette, although several have said how impressive it is, how worthwhile, even how inspiring. I did find it impressive up to the final act that we knew was coming – Emily Davidson’s fatal attempt to catch hold of the King’s horse in the Epsom Derby of 1913. Whereas the earlier scenes seemed manageable in terms of the film’s chosen aesthetic – a muted palette of greys and blues for Eduard Grau’s camera and relatively tight framing of small scenes of action – Epsom in summer sun and the toffs in colourful clothes didn’t seem to work. It felt as though the budget couldn’t stretch to a full-scale crowded racetrack and I wondered if something more abstract might not have worked better – a slow motion sequence perhaps. Afterwards I wondered whether a different event such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting in 1914 might not have been a better bet as a climactic event. As it is the funeral of Emily Davidson is represented by carefully presented ‘topical’ footage reframed from archive material. Maud is a fictional creation so it doesn’t matter what she witnessed. The other characters are mainly either ‘historical’ or based on historical characters.
I’m surprised that Meryl Streep allowed her image to be used so blatantly in the film’s promotion. She plays Emmeline Pankhurst but has only a few minutes of screen time. There are many other actors who could have performed the role and who would not have been displayed on the poster, displacing Anne-Marie Duff. The point here is that this is not a film about the middle-class suffragettes but about the foot soldiers of the movement (see Sarah Gavron’s statements in the clip below). I hope that there will be discussions about which stories appear in the film. I’ve seen North American reviews that claim that the film focuses on the middle-class activists and that this is a kind of ‘heritage film’ – but neither charge is justified. Politically, one of the most interesting aspects of the script is the links that are made to Irish independence struggles (in which women also played important roles). I’m not sure about the surveillance cameras that are used in the film (presumably this was researched?) but the presence of Brendan Gleeson as an Irish police Inspector who utilises the same methods in investigating suffragette activity as he had previously used with ‘Fenian’ activists seems an astute point. I hope that audiences make the connections between the ways in which the British state historically treated suffragettes and Irish republicans. The British state seemed to learn nothing from the treatment of hunger strikers in 1913 when it came to the treatment of internees such as Bobby Sands in 1981.
Of all the reviews I’ve seen, the best is by Graham Fuller on theartsdesk.com. I realise that we independently came to similar conclusions but he expresses them more eloquently – though he also describes the plot in some detail, so beware. The Film 4 featurette below is an excellent resource with Sarah Gavron, Abi Morgan and Anne-Marie Duff and clips from the film. I’m still staggered by the lack of historical knowledge shown by these three (and Carey Mulligan in other interviews) before they started work on the project. I’m sure this was on our school syllabuses in the 1960s, but perhaps I read it all somewhere else? What I certainly didn’t know was that the police surveillance files of the period became available to the public in 2002. But really we shouldn’t be surprised by what the state would do to confront any form of democratic challenge. This is an important film that everyone should see.
In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.
The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, except, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.
I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.
In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making the comparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.
Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):
I didn’t know too much about Drive when I sat down to watch it. I remembered vaguely that the film had done well at Cannes (it won the Director’s prize for the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn). We covered his 2010 bloody historical film Valhalla Rising, so I should have been prepared for the severity of the violence in Drive – but I wasn’t. My usual response to excessive violence is just to shut my eyes. I try not to be too moralistic about it and I endorse depictions of violence towards some form of socially useful purpose, but in this film the actions of the central character just seem excessive. In one particular scene he kisses Carey Mulligan in a tender and sensitive way and then turns and kicks a man to death. Yes, it was self-defence, but the brutality wasn’t justified. Reading various responses, this is clearly a key scene for many in the audience who discuss why ‘the driver’ (Gosling) did it and what he expected the response to be from Irene (Mulligan).
I think that I am reacting here to the avalanche of praise for the film and in particular the repeated cry that this film is ‘So Cool!’. It is extremely well-directed, brilliantly paced, beautifully designed and well-acted and it conjures up numerous noirish crime films from 70 years of Hollywood. The script by Iranian-Brit Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis is tightly constructed. This is what is fascinating. The ‘cool’ tag is partly applied because the film title most frequently cited by reviewers is Bullit with Steve McQueen. The link is a central character who is mostly silent, wearing his shades and driving gloves and driving with great skill and control through the streets of LA and its environs. McQueen traded on his looks, his lack of expression and occasional facial tics and his demeanour. He was a great star. Ryan Gosling looks and acts the part and is a coming if not ‘arrived’ star. But there the direct link to Bullit‘s narrative ends, I think.
Drive offers us Gosling as an unnamed central character, who works as a skilled mechanic and moonlights as both a Hollywood stunt driver and a getaway driver for local hoods. He has no background, no ties and in his criminal activity he is strictly disciplined. His boss at the garage hopes to make him a stock car driver but this involves getting into bed with a local gangster. ‘The driver’ meets ‘the girl’ – with a young son and a husband in prison. That’s all you need to know. As usual, Philip French makes all the appropriate film connections and he has unearthed a producer who links two ‘European’ directors taking a different look at LA crime – Peter Yates in Bullit, John Boorman in Point Blank plus the Americans Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (various titles!) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA) making films influenced by European Cinema. I’d add a further title directed by a Frenchman in the 1970s, I think, but I can’t track it down.
Personally, I think that the narrative match is with The Driver. This has Ryan O’Neal as a similarly unnamed ‘Driver’ – although here he is pursued by a cop (played by Bruce Dern). French suggests that The Driver was influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and certainly I remember thinking that the central character was a form of existentialist hero. The Gosling character seems more like a kind of avenging angel. One comment I read suggested Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ noting the toothpick the driver chews much as Eastwood chewed cheroots. This would be the Eastwood of High Plains Drifter. But this doesn’t really explain how a highly-skilled ‘driver’ transmutes into a brutal avenger (i.e. beyond just saving himself).
In The Driver, the female lead is Isabelle Adjani, in Bullit it’s Jacqueline Bisset. Here, it is another European, Carey Mulligan. I know she has been in Hollywood movies before, but to me she is about as American as Typhoo teabags. She’s very good of course and her Englishness means she can be both ‘ordinary’ and ‘mysterious’ at the same time.
The obvious point is that Drive is not a car chase movie – even if there are a cuople of well-planned chases. It’s a classy thriller which made me think of two other crime films with car/driving connections – Don Siegel’s The Killers (with John Cassavetes as a racing driver) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. To compare Drive to these two films sounds like high praise I think, but I don’t like the idea of it being ‘cool’.
An interesting take on the US release of Drive and its box office performance (below some predictions) here.
Never Let Me Go is an interesting film that is, in relative terms, ‘failing’ at the box office. It’s in some ways a brave film. It doesn’t always happen, but the spread in Sight and Sound (March 2011) in which novelist Kazuo Ishiguro and writer-director Mark Romanek make their case for the film, is for me quite convincing. Unfortunately, the audience who do go to see the film probably won’t read the journal and may well be disappointed.
I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the film narrative, but most potential viewers will know that the film is ‘dystopian’ and will therefore expect the characters to be struggling against some form of tyranny or chaos. But many such stories end with a triumph of some sort. Some potential viewers may also expect a strong romance element and a consequent depiction of the agonies of love – the pain and the passion. All of these expectations might be dashed.
Ishiguro’s novel is set in an alternative history of the UK. This makes it an example of speculative fiction. All we are told at the beginning of the film is that medical science has helped to transform lives. In the Sight and Sound piece, it becomes clearer that the basic premise is concerned with an alternative to the success British science had in the 1940s re nuclear physics. ‘What if’ all that research work had gone into medicine and ways had been found to extend life-spans to 100 years or more for most of the population? I’m not sure if this starting point was more explicit in the book, but in the film, apart from a single onscreen statement, we first see 28 year-old ‘Kathy H’ (Carey Mulligan) watching a medical procedure. This is the mid-1990s and we flashback to the late 1970s when Kathy is at a boarding school with her close friend Ruth and new boy Tommy, who is having problems settling in. Later, we meet the three characters when they have left school but have been transferred to a hostel in a remote rural setting – this is the mid 1980s. The older Ruth (Keira Knightley) has by then developed a relationship with Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Kathy remains celibate working to maintain her friendship with Ruth and repressing her desire for Tommy – she was the first to befriend him. So far, so ménage à trois, but we know something terrible is going to happen (we actually learn what this is, but not all of its consequences, during the boarding school phase).
Part of my fascination with this film is to disentangle the original proposal and its treatment in an industrial/commercial context and the ways in which it has been approached by several distinct potential audiences. The first adaptation of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel was The Remains of the Day in 1993 which proved to be a major arthouse success starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. There would certainly be an audience of Ishiguro readers who would consider another adaptation favourably, although speculative fiction offered by ‘literary’ authors is sometimes a more difficult sell. This audience may also be concerned by the ways in which film adaptations can emphasise action over reflection, changing the tone of the novel. With this audience in mind, Never Let Me Go could perhaps have been a small-scale ‘specialised film’. When the film production got underway, this might still have been possible. Carey Mulligan was cast on the basis of early sightings of her performance in An Education – before she became a celebrity figure. She persuaded her friend Keira Knightley (and the producers) to appear as Ruth. Knightley is a major star/celebrity figure, but she has appeared in smaller films without noticeably disrupting those films via her star image. However, I think that in this case the casting of Andrew Garfield probably helped tip the scale. As with Mulligan, when production began Garfield was a highly regarded young actor, but not a big ‘name’ Hollywood star. Now he is a lead in a hit film, The Social Network, and is currently ‘in production’ as the new Spider-Man . When Never Let Me Go opened in the UK, there must have been a potential young audience, longing for a sight of these stars in a mainstream romance film. At the same time, the specialised cinema audience which enjoys intelligent and intriguing speculative fiction/science fiction may have been put off by the prospect of a Hollywood-style romance. So, three different audiences all with possible problems. My first inkling of the problem was during the London Film Festival when I couldn’t help overhearing the woman behind me telling her friend that she’d seen Never Let Me Go as the Opening Film of the festival. She had found it so harrowing that she had immediately bought the biggest box of chocolates she could find and taken it to a screening of the Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film Knight and Day as an antidote.
How can I explain what Never Let Me Go is about without a spoiler? Let’s just say that the three young people face a terrible prognosis of what is in store for them. This is hinted at quite cleverly in the opening sequence of their early schooldays. They don’t have full names – just a first name and an initial, rather like the character in Kafka’s tales of paranoia. There is something decidedly spooky about the school – not least Charlotte Rampling as the headteacher. In a Hollywood movie our heroes would intuit the danger, find out the true story and then fight to be free. In real life, as Kazuo Ishiguro argues, most people faced with a terrible prognosis don’t fight it in a Quixotic way (though a handful do – and they often become the subject of biopics or melodramas). Most of us would focus on mundane daily routines and on our relationships with those nearest to us. Under pressure and frightened of losing control we look for something we can hold on to. In this film, the trio have only each other and the complicated feelings they have for each other. They each love the other two in different ways. But what is love? What do you want for the person you love and how do you express that love?That’s what this film is about and how it ends, how that love is expressed, is the key to the film’s resolution. The film’s title is echoed in a ‘fictional’ song that the child Tommy gives to Kathy on a music cassette and in a way ‘letting go’ becomes the crucial question for the characters – whatever it may mean. I confess that while I enjoyed the film as I watched it, I found the Sight and Sound material very helpful and I’ve thought about it at some length since.
Technically, the film is very well made with cinematography, editing and sound beautifully representing the tone of the narrative and the fictional world – the ‘not quite there’ feeling of the time periods and the strange but familiar English landscapes (at least one location in Scotland though). The casting and acting performances are excellent all round and the young actors morph into the well-known faces in quite an uncanny way. I did feel sorry for Keira Knightley in that her role is as the least sympathetic of the main characters and the least likely to gain favourable notices. On the other hand, Carey Mulligan couldn’t ask for a better role and she is extremely good. She’s now at the point where she will be offered the roles that could make her a major star. I hope she chooses wisely.
Afterthought: I meant to mention that the script adaptation is by Alex Garland, known recently for his two science fiction scripts for Danny Boyle (28 Days Later and Sunshine). This may have contributed to audience expectations. By all accounts, his script keeps close to the novel’s narrative.
I’m not sure that I should write about An Education as my critical faculties more or less went out of the window after a few minutes of watching Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a 16/17 year-old schoolgirl in the suburban London of the early 1960s. A great deal has already been said about her performance and I can only concur. Her impact in this film can only be compared to Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar or, more recently, Reese Witherspoon in Election or Ellen Page in Juno.
For the uninitiated, Carey Mulligan was 22 when she started work on An Education after supporting roles in UK TV drama productions, including classic serial adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Ironically, she and Rosamund Pike – her co-star in An Education – both played as sisters to Kiera Knightley in the recent Pride and Prejudice film (UK 2005). I think Ms Knightley might be looking over her shoulder now (and she has the chance in Never Let Me Go, currently filming with Knightley and Mulligan in leading roles). But perhaps we should be wary of conferring star status quite so quickly. Also in the cast list of An Education is Olivia Williams, one of several bright and gifted young British actors who went to Hollywood with high hopes and despite some very good performances (e.g. in Rushmore (US 1999)) never quite made it in the big league.
Anyway, enough gushing. If you are outside the UK, you might need a bit of background to this film which several commentators have suggested will be on Nomination Lists for Awards in the New Year. That is, if you didn’t already know that Carey Mulligan was pronounced as the ‘It Girl’ of this year’s Sundance Festival where An Education was a big hit. The narrative is based on a short memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber that first appeared in the literary magazine Granta (and has subsequently been expanded and published by Penguin – if you don’t mind spoilers, Lynn Barber explains the whole story in the Guardian). The adaptation took several years to be teased into shape by Nick Hornby, the well-known novelist whose other film work includes adaptations of his own novels, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy – all in their own terms successful small films. But Hornby has generally been seen as a ‘new man’, ‘young Dad’ kind of writer. Would he be able to write a convincing script about a bright schoolgirl in an earlier era? Hiring a woman to direct must have seemed a good idea, but Lone Scherfig as a Dane of a similar age possibly faced the same problems as Hornby. Although she has worked in the UK for some time, as far as I know, Scherfig is more familiar with working-class Glaswegians than the lower middle class in Twickenham (she created the characters for Andrea Arnold’s Red Road). But I guess that the story is universal and since Barber is such a good writer, the raw material was probably all there. Nevertheless, hats off to Hornby and Scherfig who provide the support/direction for Mulligan’s performance.
An Education is a clever title for an unusual ‘coming of age’ story. Jenny is a bright girl and seemingly destined for a place at Oxford. But this is 1961, that very strange and quite precise period in the UK before the explosion of creativity after 1963. The country was virtually out of austerity but hadn’t yet been given the signal to get started on the real social revolution. Life was pleasant, but not exciting. That’s not to say that the country hadn’t changed since 1945. If you were an intelligent working-class or lower middle class teenager, for the first time you now did have the option, as a grammar school boy or girl, of working hard and getting free higher education (read and weep if you are a current student). The numbers who were able to take advantage were small but significant.
Jenny has a chance encounter with an older man who seduces her into his very upmarket roadster (a Bristol, no less) and then cons Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to concerts, dinners and more. The parents in the film are played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour and they do good jobs in what are very difficult roles. I think the writing of the parental roles is nearly always the weakest part of these stories. The narrative always obliges us to focus on the exciting possibilities of youth – never on the feelings of parents who have struggled through the war and austerity and now see their unthinking offspring breaking free from the boredom of suburbia. There’s a different kind of film to be made about that.
There are several important incidents in the film that pin down the period and which need a little explanation. ‘Popping over’ to Paris was still a very exotic thing to do in 1961. You had to be either very rich or up to no good or a modern languages student on an exchange or a school trip. Jenny has a romantic weekend in Paris at the high point of the French New Wave – which she has been experiencing on trips to arthouse cinemas in London. The obverse of this is the film’s accurate and now very shocking references to the blatant racism/colour bar in London and its exploitation by the notorious Peter Rachman, who would later emerge as a key figure in the Profumo Affair in 1963. This reference points towards Scandal (UK 1989) the undervalued Michael Caton-Jones film that features Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda as ‘goodtime girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There are moments in Jenny’s seduction into the world of conmen, racketeers and high living (especially those with Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) that are reminiscent of Scandal – the costumes in particular are a very good indicator of period.
The Profumo Affair was in many ways the moment of catharsis in British social life. It saw the collapse of the Tory Cabinet and paved the way for the Labour victory in 1964 and all the social legislation that followed. Jenny’s story would not have quite the same impact six or seven years later during the ‘Swingin Sixties’ period in London (roughly 1965-9). Having said that, Darling (UK 1965) with Julie Christie would make an interesting comparison with An Education. On the whole though, the later 1960s films feature working-class girls from the North coming to London and discovering an exciting life.
Back to An Education, I don’t think it is a perfect film. I think the relatively restricted budget shows in continuity errors and an unconvincing rain scene for the crucial first meeting (an almost surreal summer rainstorm perhaps). The final sequence seems truncated and oddly unsatisfying and I think that there are tonal shifts elsewhere that are unsettling. This is inevitable I think given the mix of youth picture, romance, comedy and social commentary. To my taste, Emma Thompson as Jenny’s headteacher is just too much and it seems so unfair to constrain the beautiful Olivia Williams in a role as a repressed English teacher. I understand why the producers want to use star names in small roles to attract audiences, but for me the film would work better with less well-known actors in these roles. One other possible irritation is the music. The original recordings are well chosen: Billy Fury, Floyd Cramer, Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothings’ – terrific), Mel Tormé (inspired), Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Juliette Greco. The modern stuff by Beth Rowley and Duffy is fine, but it sounds ‘retro’ – again it seems to be a nod towards younger audiences? The score is by Paul Englishby who is highly regarded, but the score didn’t work for me.
You can hear some of the music on the official website and in the (very good) trailer below with Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles in the background.
In this American trailer you get some of the score and a Beth Rowley song:
Here’s Carey Mulligan in a Toronto Film Festival interview with some interesting comments on her role:
I hope that this film gets used in A Level classes as it promises to open up interesting debates about the changing representations of young women and about a crucial period of British social history. It also offers many links to British Cinema’s other attempts to represent the 1960s. An analysis of Carey Mulligan’s rapid rise also looks possible and an extensive fansite is already available.