Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015)

Suffragette opened the London Film Festival in some style tonight, with the stars out in force at the Vue in Leicester Square to bring their film to crowds in what was also the European premiere. The London Film Festival director Clare Stewart said prior to the screening that it was an “urgent and compelling film, made by British women, about British women who changed the course of history.” How right she was.

Carey Mulligan puts in an excellent performance.

The film, directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, tracks the true story of the early suffragette movements of the late 19th and early 20th century and how their struggles against increasing opposition from all around them got harder as their prominence rose. The focal point is the fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working class washerwoman who gets slowly drawn into the fight for power and ends up losing everything to fight for her equality. She joins the local branch of the suffragette movement after a chance encounter in the West End, and quickly finds her feet alongside Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, incidentally the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith who was Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916), Violet Miller (a standout performance from Anne-Marie Duff) and Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), a woman whose life is worthy of a film in her own right.

Just as important to the dynamics of this story are the men. Maud’s husband Sonny Watts is an extremely complex character portrayed magnificently by Ben Whishaw. As Whishaw discussed prior to the screening, Sonny is conflicted by the desire to protect and provide for the family he loves and doesn’t understand the importance of his wife’s involvement. However, as the plot progresses he makes some unforgivable decisions that further drive Maud’s determination. Brendan Gleeson provides depth to the role of Inspector Arthur Steed, a man of authority who is investigating the movement.

However, this is a film about women and made by women. It is extremely refreshing to see a film where the women take centre stage and it isn’t about how in love they may or may not be with a man. Screenwriter Abi Morgan said prior to the premiere that “a film that is fronted by an ensemble of women, and they are not being funny or romantic, is hard. That became a huge obstacle.” It didn’t feel like there were any obstacles in the final product, though the story is a tough one to discover if your only experience is the sanitised version of the suffragettes where everyone sits around drinking tea and waving flags that is much easier to tell and even easier to digest.

Meryl Streep appears as British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. It is a positive move to use her in the advertising and posters as her popularity will bring punters to this important piece of cinema. However, it will be a great shame if she ends up being overly celebrated for her appearance, especially given it is so brief. There are at least three actresses in this film more deserving of accolades for their supporting roles.

In 2015 34% of women eligible to vote in the United Kingdom failed to vote in the general election. This figure rises to 56% for the under 25s. Overall that’s almost ten million women. So was the suffragette’s fight in vain? For the most part, no. However, these stats do underline that the right the UK has to vote is now taken for granted. As such, the release of Suffragette is as poignant now as it ever could have been.

A postscript identifies the years in which women were given the vote in various countries around the world. It is not surprising to see that several countries are still lagging on this front, though perhaps the popularity of this film will help rectify these issues ever so slightly.

This is a powerful piece of cinema and a relevant work of art. It is essential viewing for all women, any of the 33.9% of the UK public who decided not to vote in the 2015 general election, and anyone with a passion for excellent cinema.

Suffragette will be released in UK cinemas on 12 October 2015.

Into The Woods (Rob Marshall, 2015)

Into The Woods is the big screen adaptation of the classic Sondheim musical of the same name, courtesy of Walt Disney Studios. With a big cast and even bigger budget, it is a film hotly anticipated by fans of musical theatre the world over. So was it any good?

Well, first things first. If you’re thinking of going to see this, you’d better like musicals. If you went to see Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and thought “I wish these songs would stop”, then you’ve got to avoid this. This is a Sondheim musical (he also wrote the music for Sweeney Todd) and the songs really aren’t a patch on his best work. Having been part of amateur theatre groups in my time, I’m familiar with picking up songs quickly and memorising their melodies with just one or two listens. I can’t even hum a single song from this. It’s probably because they’re just relentless. It doesn’t break you in easily either. The first song either was 12 minutes long or felt like it was, with characters weaving in and out of each other’s motifs in a really clever but essentially quite annoying manner. It was just too much.

If you don’t know, Into The Woods is a story that inter-weaves the plots from four classic fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. It’s quite clever, although a bit pantomimey at times. However, you have to be willing to go along with the storyline, as with many musicals, and allow yourself to be entertained. As best you can.

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The cast is full of huge stars: James Corden and Emily Blunt play the cursed bakers set a task by Meryl Streep’s evil witch. Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, Chris Pine is the charming but cringeworthy Prince Charming, Tracey Ullman is brilliant as the mother of Jack, and Johnny Depp manages to portray Riding Hood’s Wolf at a notch slightly less creepy than his take on Willy Wonka, despite the first half of the song sounding like he is a paedophile (though this is just a criticism of the quite awful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if I’m honest).

There are some wonderful moments. If you’ve never seen the quintessential male bravado one-upmanship song “Agony”, then Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson do a mighty fine job of it. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are both excellent in their respective roles and continue to impress me as they develop through their careers. Tracy Ullman, as I’ve already mentioned, was another highlight.

My overarching feeling is that I am well-positioned to really like this. One of my guilty pleasures is a good Disney film when I’m feeling down. I’m a fan of musical theatre. I think all of the cast have been brilliant in plenty of other films and this film doesn’t represent a career-lot for anyone. I just left the cinema feeling indifferent and worn out.

It’s well timed because it goes hand-in-hand with Disney’s other big release in Q1 2015, Big Hero 6, which is due out in just under a month and probably has minimal cross-over with the younger target audience.

It is a faithful but watered down version of the stage musical, aimed squarely at the family audience. It retains some of the darkness and some of the magic, but falls short across the board.

Into The Woods is out now at cinemas across the UK.