Opinion: Why ‘Suffragette’ Proves Period Comedies Need A Revival
Back in 2010, a heartwarming British comedy called Made in Dagenham appeared on the cinematic scene. The film, directed by Nigel Cole, focused primarily on the true story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists strike, examining in detail the issue of gender pay discrimination as well as the impact that the feminist workers who led the strike at Ford’s Dagenham factory had on their families’ lives in the process.
Sound familiar? It certainly should – despite being set around half a century before and despite its adopting a markedly more somber tone, Sarah Gavron’s big-screen period drama Suffragette – multiple scenes of which were filmed in and around Islington – tackles many of the same themes as those investigated by Cole just five years ago. Yet whereas the latter release has so far earned itself plaudits aplenty, not least from The Telegraph (4) and Time Out London (4), thereby securing its future as a much-discussed work of cinema, barring a recent West End adaptation and a few BAFTA nominations, Dagenham appears to have largely faded from the public consciousness, perhaps as a result of its mixed initial critical reception.
“Nonetheless, this remains a film for knee-jerk feminists and the soft in the head. A promising opportunity has been squandered.” (The Guardian on Made in Dagenham)
Upon experiencing Gavron’s 106-minute look at the efforts of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), Emilia Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and their comrades to secure equal rights last week, however, this writer couldn’t help but find himself longing to return to Cole’s more lighthearted yet undoubtedly intelligently executed rendition of 1968 England. Why? To be perfectly blunt, melancholic biopics such as Gavron’s – which focuses primarily on Watts’ contribution to the early 20th-20th Century feminist movement, going out of its way via scenes of force-feeding and police brutality to showcase the struggle and strife of their efforts – are beginning to become a worryingly predictable sub-genre unto themselves these days, leaving little room for real innovation or subversion of audience expectations.
One only needs to look at recent acclaimed works of period cinema to see this fast-developing trend in action: from 12 Years a Slave to J. Edgar, from The Railway Man to the soon-to-be released The Danish Girl, the number of motion pictures currently looking back on the lives of forgotten and beloved historical figures alike, always with the same dishearteningly melancholic tone as well as the same captions used to fill in the gaps of the protagonist’s lives for fear of the screenplay having to make the bold step into adapting the most controversial moments of their inspirations’ lives (heaven forbid that we should have seen Alan Turing’s tragic suicide play out on-screen in the closing moments of The Imitation Game!), seems staggering to say the very least.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, yet all the same, it seems doubtful at best to think that other viewers aren’t craving a return to the days when period blockbusters didn’t take themselves so seriously, Cole’s Dagenham representing one of the strongest recent examples in its melding of family and societal drama with parties, slapstick and raunchy moments aplenty. The evidence is certainly there – just look at how well Pride performed both commercially (the film took more than £3 million at the UK box office alone) and critically (if its acquisition of BAFTAs and Toronto Film Festival billings was anything to go by) last year despite director Matthew Warchus using comedy-orientated actors like Imelda Staunton and Paddy Considine to depict the struggle of the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners movement (who sought to gain acceptance from both the mine workers of the 1980s and indeed contemporary British society overall) in as jovial a fashion as possible.
This isn’t to say that today’s cinematic period dramas like Suffragette don’t sport enough in the way of merits to warrant their existence, however – quite to the contrary, any film which brings Islington to the big-screen and which draws attention to such pivotal issues as feminism deserves attention regardless of its genre. Indeed, few would likely deny the remarkable emotional power of Mulligan and Streep’s turns as some of the foremost members of the early suffragette movement, just as Cumberbatch excelled in both impressing and moving the nation with his work in the role of Turing last year.
Yet at the same time, this writer would wager that just as few critics would willingly claim that the oft-lighthearted manner in which Forrest Gump – and its beloved leading man, Tom Hanks – portrayed key events in American history such as Vietnam and the infamous Watergate scandal robbed the motion picture’s hugely intelligent screenplay of any of its dramatic impact. Instead, this 1994 great seamlessly combined its more downbeat moments with laughs aplenty, much to the universal admiration of critics at the time and of audiences around the world twenty-one years later.
Rather than the filmmakers of 2015 and beyond becoming obsessed with the brutality of the challenges which faced historical figures like Pankhurst, then, perhaps they might instead consider how such adversities led these icons to demonstrate humanity’s unyielding capacity for hope, laughter and perseverance, even when living through the darkest of times. There’ll always be a place for high-brow period drama of Suffragette‘s ilk at the box office, especially with the recent success of Downton Abbey on the small-screen, but even so, taking the time to look at the past from a less sombre perspective might just be the key to ensuring that audiences don’t start jumping off the period genre’s bandwagon altogether.
After all, if something doesn’t change in the coming months, then viewers may soon feel as if the psychological agonies endured by the likes of the early suffragettes pales in comparison to the prospect of enduring another two hours of this predictable, overly melancholic form of storytelling, especially when historical comedies like Gump and more recently Dagenham offer them a more soulful, surprising but no less dramatically layered alternative.
Have you watched Suffragette yet? If so, be sure to leave your thoughts on the film in the comments section below. If not, then for details of upcoming screenings, visit Vue Islington’s website here.