Thursday, 5 June 2014

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

Iron Jawed Angels is a 2004 HBO biopic about the Women's Suffrage Movement of America and the trials and tribulations these women - and specifically Hilary Swank as their leader Alice Paul - were faced with in securing their right to vote.

The film offers, to quote the blurb on the DVD, 'a fresh and contemporary take' on historical events. What this means is director Katja von Garnier uses disorientating modern pop music, nifty editing techniques and sped up camerawork to tell the tale. At best it offers a distinctive and kinetic experience, at worst it makes much of the action feel like a pop promo or, worse, a Tampax advert! I'm not averse to such anachronistic techniques - in fact in other productions I find it quite favourable - but given that the Suffragette story is, in any part of the world, such an overlooked and under-explored moment in our history, the basic facts are fresh enough to an audiences eyes without the need for such contemporary enhancements. Indeed, film and TV making seem very happy and eager to tell stories about how the Establishment of yesteryear shamed us with its acts of war and slavery but they all too often seem loathe to discuss how they mistreated and abused, to use a term they may feel comfortable with, 'their own'. Perhaps it's something to do with unsettling our perceived notion of security, rights and democracy, to know that such things have happened and can happen in so called civilised society.

It is really only when we reach the film's last half and the most severe hardships for our heroines - their time in the prison/workhouse and the force feeding techniques Alice Paul was abused with when she commenced her hunger strike - that the flashy visual verve is slowed down to allow the harsh reality of the tale to be told, and I actually think this section is improved because of it. Sadly by the time we reach this it becomes clear that much of the initial screenplay by Sally Robinson et al has perhaps, for better or worse, become lost under the weight of the director's chosen path and the narrative emphasis on Swank's Ms Paul, and we realise that we know little enough about much of the film's supporting characters who are also suffering internment. Despite being played by such commendable and talented actresses like Frances O'Connor, Laura Fraser, Vera Farmiga and Molly Parker, they are to varying degrees little more than ciphers. Certainly Fraser in particular has a vastly undeveloped and ill explored role, despite securing some beautiful close ups throughout the bold and often charming visual style. Outside of this stage in the film, other actresses including Julia Ormond and Angelica Huston also lose out, with the former, as Inez Millholland, in particular suffering the  indignity of portraying her character literally campaigning herself to death in front of a revolving sky visual perhaps last seen in a Talking Heads video! 

Equally Patrick Dempsey as a potential love interest for Swank is equally short changed, though I think that's intentional to explore how Alice Paul had to put everything in second place to her campaign. This is shown in a rather awkward but discreetly shot moment in which Swank takes a wank in a bath tub. It's jarring, but it does on reflection suggest a loneliness to the character as well as explore the notion that sexual desires are just as prevalent in women as they are in men - something society sometimes has trouble admitting to this day.

Once the characters are freed from prison the story all too swiftly moves to its resolution. It's a shame because as anyone who has researched this moment in history knows it is false and rather cavalier to suggest one woman staged a hunger strike and then as a direct result secured the vote for women across the USA. There was much more time and effort and struggle and hardship to come for so many campaigners yet this is largely ignored to wrap the film up. 

Despite such criticisms and my still uncertain stance on whether I feel the anachronism worked overall, I would still recommend Iron Jawed Angels; it is an important piece and a still sadly all too rare depiction of and testament to the sacrifices and bloodshed those brave women endured to give their sisters of today a democratic voice.

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