THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES… Movie Reviews of Suffragette, Crimson Peak and The Assassin by Howard Casner

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Warning: SPOILERS

suffragetteIn the new historical semi-epic Suffragette, women fight for the right to vote. Not a particularly controversial topic these days, except perhaps in some remote regions of the radical right.

Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame and the TV series The Hour) and directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), there’s nothing that wrong with the movie and it does its job admirably enough, and all the while backed by impeccable period settings and costumes ranging from working to the more leisurely classes.

At the same time, there’s nothing that exciting about it either. It’s a movie that does what it does, but that’s about all that it does.

The strongest parts of the film are in the first third which dramatizes in often devastating detail the life of Maud Watts who works in a laundry. Here the women are paid less than the men (and do more work and have longer hours); endure horrifying working conditions; and are the victims of their bosses sexual predilections.

Maud is your everywoman here, great at her job, a loving mother and wife, reluctant to rock the boat, but equipped with a righteous conscious. In other words, everything the central character of a movie should be so as not to alienate the audience.

That’s perhaps a bit unfair because Carey Mulligan, who plays Maud, gives a very empathetic performance and makes her more than a construct.

But the film begins to lose its way in the second third as the suffragette movement starts taking center stage. It’s hard to say exactly why the movie starts flailing a bit here, except that the screenplay, perhaps, can’t seem to make the idea of women’s right to vote as compelling and interesting as their work and sexual exploitation.

 

One issue might be that the connection between a person’s right to vote and better working conditions is a bit tenuous at best. One doesn’t resolve the other (just ask the men) and workplace rights took a different battle that was often just as fierce and far more violent.

 

But I also think the screenplay can’t seem to find a satisfying through line to hold everything together. At first, it seems it’s going to be Maud having to choose between going to jail or helping the police as an information.

 

I actually didn’t think this was a particularly good way to go as it was, but it’s also dismissed so quickly in the next scene, one wonders why anybody even bothered in the first place.

 

They then try to give the officer in charge of stopping the movement (Arthur Steed) a conscious and a character arc, but there’s no payoff here either.

 

It finally seems to sort of settle on the idea that the only thing the movement is missing is publicity (anything they do from blowing up mailboxes to blowing up a minister’s country home to going on hunger strikes are buried on the back pages of the media), but this approach never really seems to drive the story that much either.

 

So again, in the last two-thirds of the movie, it’s only the scenes that focus on Maud and her trials and tribulations, especially the ones of her son being given up for adoption against her will, that really come alive.

 

The acting is more than satisfactory. But it’s probably Brendan Gleeson as Steed, who says his lines as if spitting bullets with a laser like twinkly gleam in his eyes; Meryl Streep as the movement’s head Emmeline Pankhurst, who seems to be channeling Dame Edith Evans about to go on stage as Lady Bracknell; and Ben Wishaw as Maud’s husband, who seems so little boy lost in not being able to comprehend what is going on, who give the strongest performance.

 

With Helena Bonham-Carter as a female doctor.

 

crimson peakIn Crimson Peak, the new woman in danger/female thriller in which a newlywed is taken to a remote mansion in the middle of nowhere, wispy voice Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a strong and independent-minded woman determined to make her way as a novelist of gothic type romances.

 

She has the choice of two men to make a future with: Dr. Alan Michael (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), handsome and rock solid, who has a growing ophthalmology practice and who encourages Edith as a writer and even shares her belief in ghosts; or

 

Faux Byronesque Thomas Sharp (sleepy eyed, mellow voiced Thomas Hiddleston—Loki, for those of you who are Avengers fans), who has come to New York to ask Edith’s father for funds to build a new kind of ore digging machine in order to restore the wealth and good standing of his family name, and someone who is obviously a fortune hunter to everyone but Edith.

 

So who does Edith choose?

 

Why, Thomas of course.

 

Why?

 

Well, because…because, well…well, because she’s a woman, you see, and let’s face it, women are silly little creatures after all, bless their malleable hearts, who, no matter how independent they think themselves to be, are in the end ruled solely by their emotions, not their head, as woman are apt to do. Poor things.

 

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins (both of whom have done much better work in the past) and directed by del Toro, I think it’s safe to say that from my perspective, Crimson Peaks is not one of the better female thrillers. It’s certainly beautiful to look at with luxurious, puffy-shouldered Gibson girl costumes that the women are forced into; a remote, decaying, decrepit manor with entranceways that look like open mouths with jagged teeth; a creaking elevator and other various mysterious sounds that go worse than bump in the night; and a moor born wasteland surrounding it as far as the eye can see.

 

But it’s basic plot and structure seems more based on the optimum use of 3D rather than a rational storyline, and the whole thing is filled with ghastly ghosts that, when all is said and done, don’t really have a lot to do with anything and could easily have been dispensed with except then what would you use the 3D for?

 

It’s also filled with Thomas’s sister Lucille Sharp (Jessica Chastain), a younger version of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca, who is really the fierce and strong female character here, and who, therefore, has to be as crazy as a loon.

 

It’s probably doesn’t help that our ninny of a heroine is a little slow on the uptake. She is the only who can’t see that her husband is a gold digger. She doesn’t even catch on when he avoids having sex with her on their honeymoon (note to ninnies everywhere—that’s always a dead giveaway).

 

In her defense, though, it must be said that just about everyone in the movie suffers from the old slow on the uptake syndrome. When Edith’s father is murdered in such an over the top and ridiculously obvious way, everyone calmly passes it off as an accident and lets the obvious suspects leave the country.

 

The movie has a truly romantic ending as Alan comes to rescue his beloved during a ruthless snowstorm.

 

I’m not sure I would have bothered.

 

assassinThe Assassin is Taiwan’s entry in the Foreign Language Film Category of the Academy Awards. If nothing else, it is certainly a movie of great beauty with ravishing Tang-dynasty costumes, breathtaking panoramic views of the Chinese countryside, and simple interiors that evoke a quiet minimalism.

 

Beyond that, I’m not sure how to proceed because I found this new film of Hsaio-Hsien Hou (who is considered to be one of China’s greatest filmmakers) to be impenetrable. I simply had no idea what the plot was; who was who; what anyone’s goals were; and what was at stake.

 

When it was over, I believe it had something to do with a warrior nun raising a female assassin to seek revenge against someone who had done her wrong, but in the end, the female assassin has too much of a conscious to carry out her teacher’s plans, leading to a final deadly confrontation.

 

But don’t go by me.

 


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