FILM

Tricia Youlden

Suffragette ★★★★★ M

In London, 1912, women still do not have the vote, the right to own property, or equal pay. Decades of lobbying have achieved nothing, so Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst (a cameo by Meryl Streep), the leader of the suffragette movement, calls for civil disobedience.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working in a laundry since she was seven years old, at the mercy of her predatory boss, Taylor (Geoff Bell). She lives in relative poverty with her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), and their young son, George (Adam Michael Dodd).

One evening, while delivering a laundry parcel to the West End, Maud finds herself amidst a group of women who begin throwing rocks through shop windows.

Covertly photographed there, Maud comes to the attention of Inspector Steed (a richly layered characterisation by Brendan Gleeson) of the Metropolitan Police.

Despite protestations that she is not a suffragette, Maud finds herself inevitably drawn to the cause in which her workmate, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), her local pharmacist, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), and her MP’s wife, Alice (Romola Garai), believe so fervently.

After having given testimony before a seemingly empathetic prime minister, Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), and a committee investigating women’s working conditions, Maud optimistically believes that women are soon to be enfranchised.

When this does not happen, her politicisation is rapid. After being arrested and gaoled a second time Maud finds herself without a home, a job or a family. Yet, no longer having anything to lose merely hardens her resolve and commitment to the cause. Maud joins the more militant women in their endeavours to sabotage the communication system.

They cut telegraph wires, fire-bomb letterboxes and even Lloyd George’s empty holiday home but the police and government suppress press reports about these activities and the women’s subsequent hunger strikes in gaol.

Eventually, however, when Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) is killed while trying to pin the suffragette colours to the king’s horse in the Epsom Derby, her public death is captured on film.

With the suffragette cause thus publicised throughout the world, the tide of public opinion finally turns. At Emily’s funeral on June 14, 1913, thousands of women dressed in white with black bands marched behind her coffin. The film closes with archival footage of this event.

Producers Faye Ward and Alison Own, writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron were clearly passionate about the topic of this superb film. It is sobering to realise that the events depicted in the film occurred barely 100 years ago. Even more sobering is the closing list of dates on which various countries confirmed the vote for women.

Beautifully filmed by Eduard Grau, impeccably designed by Alice Normington, with a score by Alexandre Desplat, Suffragette is probably the best film I have seen in 2015.

The Belier Family ★★★ M

Also opening here on Boxing Day is The Belier Family, the award-winning, box-office hit from French director Eric Lartigau. Written and played largely as a comedy, this film actually deals with quite a serious issue.

Sixteen-year-old Paula (Louane Emera) is different from her parents (Francois Damiens and Karin Viard) and brother (Luca Gelberg). Unlike them, she is not deaf. She helps her parents run their dairy farm and fields phone calls about business matters.

At the village market where they sell the cheeses that her mother makes, Paula describes their division of labour as “she smiles, I speak”. She accompanies her father and mother to the doctor, translating even intimate sexual matters for them. She also is her father’s voice in his bid to become mayor. In many ways, the parent-child roles are reversed.

Ironically, Paula has a naturally beautiful singing voice. When her schoolteacher (Eric Elmosnino) convinces her to audition for a Parisian music college the girl is faced with a dilemma. Can she relinquish her familial responsibilities? What will her parents think? Will they understand?

How she and her family work this out is both touching and provocative, challenging our perceptions of normality.

Win tickets

The Program ★★★★ M

Director Stephen Frears has successfully taken on the mammoth task of retelling the story of Lance Armstrong, the now-discredited seven-time winner of the Tour de France.

Inspired by Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, written by David Walsh, screenwriter John Hodge takes us inside not only the peloton but the minds of the cyclists, the officials and the whole Tour de France circus.

The Program follows Armstrong’s career from his first Tour de France in 1993 when Walsh first interviewed the ambitious young cyclist. We see Armstrong overcome testicular and cerebral cancer and return to cycling in 1999, winning the Tour for seven consecutive years; he appears to be not only invincible but untouchable.

Actor Ben Foster gives an amazing performance as the cyclist and the man. On the one hand, Armstrong is the charismatic, inspirational founder of the Livestrong cancer support organisation. On the other, he is an egotistical, manipulative bully, capable of cruelly vilifying anyone who dares oppose him, such as his masseuse, Emma O’Reilly (Lara Donnelly), his former teammate’s wife, Betsy Andreu (Elaine Cassidy) and of course, David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd), the tenacious sports writer who refuses to turn a blind eye.

Seeing the elaborate set-up through which Armstrong and his fellow US Post team systematically inject themselves with performance-enhancing drugs, then transfuse their blood before testing, it seems incredible that such organised doping could be allowed to continue for as long as it did.

Just as Foster bears an uncanny resemblance to Armstrong, so do the actors playing the other main characters. This facilitates some extraordinarily neat editing by Valerio Bonelli as he intercuts cinematographer Danny Cohen’s race footage with archival clips. Visually engaging though the film is, it is the insight into Armstrong’s psyche that is most enthralling — and disturbing.

The You Tube clip of Armstrong’s public admission of guilt to Oprah Winfrey prompted the following post: “Armstrong’s case is a good example why many psychopaths prevail — because people buy into their BS and ‘perfect narratives’.” Food for thought indeed.

5 Flights Up ★★★★ M

Alex (Morgan Freeman) and Ruth (Diane Keaton) have lived in their light and airy Brooklyn apartment for 40 years. He is a painter and she a retired teacher.

Because their apartment is five floors up without a lift they have succumbed to pressure from Ruth’s niece Lily (Cynthia Nixon), a real estate agent, to let her list their apartment for sale, just to test the market.

Lily has recently organised her own mother’s move into a smaller apartment. Nixon’s portrayal of her character’s frenzied desperation to make a sale rings scarily true.

Unfortunately, a few hours before their apartment is about to go on view, the couple’s beloved dog, Dorothy, is taken ill. While this is distracting for her aunt and uncle, Lily is worried that the dramatic live TV news coverage of a possible terrorist attack on nearby Brooklyn Bridge might deter prospective buyers.

As she engineers a bidding war between prospective purchasers, the pressure on Alex and Ruth mounts and memories of their life together in the apartment come flooding back. Korey Jackson and Australian Claire van der Boom are perfectly cast as the young Alex and Ruth.

The screenplay is based on the novel Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, inspired by personal experience. The writing, Richard Loncraine’s assured direction and the actors’ skill ensures that the characters do not become clichéd: we believe in them. The film has a delightful sense of humour.

Yet, for whatever reason, this beautifully-crafted film has gone straight to DVD. I recommend that you source it soon.

Tricia Youlden teaches Drama at Willoughby Girls High School.