Review: The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack


Can filmmaking beauty bloom in isolated circumstances?

Can filmmaking beauty bloom in isolated circumstances?

Around June of this year it seemed like several of the film podcasts I listen to and review sites that I frequent were talking about this documentary, and in glowing terms too. Again and again I hoped to have the time to go and see it during its brief theatrical run in Ireland, and again and again I was foiled. But, finally, streaming options have provided. The Wolfpack promised much: a film about isolated families, cult-like behaviour from patriarchs and filmmaking. But was Crystal Moselle’s documentary all that it was hyped up to be? Or was the praise too much, for an otherwise unexceptional effort?

In 1995, Oscar and Susanne Angula began to raise a family in the housing projects of Lower East Side Manhattan. Six sons and a daughter are born to the couple over the next 14 years: fearful of outside influences and desiring to create a “tribe” of his own, Oscar kept his wife and children mostly confined in their small apartment for the whole period. Isolated, the Angula siblings interact with the outside world mostly through a shared love of film, recreating their favourite moments, before eventually taking firmer steps outside their front door.

From the opening moments, when you see the Angula brothers recreating scenes from Quintin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs inside the rather dingy confines of their small apartment, The Wolfpack does begin a process of showing you the depths of ingenuity one can find in the most unlikely places, and how the power of film can penetrate many barriers. It does this with this cast of imminently likeable, and even charming, young men, who are awkward on camera but not terrified, and seem eager to have their story told. You might expect conflict and clashes in the claustrophobic setting between numerous teenaged boys, but instead there is a genuine warmth and affection between them all, having lived so close to each for so long. Indeed, it is striking how normal the Angulo’s appear, only faltering when put into situations outside the apartment. The retreat into the fantasy provided by the movies is not surprising in the least, but what it all means is a bit trickier to understand.

The Wolfpack can’t get past the fact that it doesn’t really have all that much to say, and no effectively made point by the conclusion. I suppose you could call it a failure of narrative: with the documentarian silently behind the camera for the most part, and with no inclusion of how she became aware of the Angula’s and how she was able to gain access to their lives, The Wolfpack is missing something very important, and pertinent details of how Moselle is affecting the tale by her very presence go unanswered. It seems at first to be an exploratory documentary, trying to document this isolated family, but becomes more of a recordation by the end, and a rather dry, dull one at that.

The Wolfpack quickly sets its scene, immediately mixing its modern interviews – mostly featuring the eldest sibling, Mokunda – with the family archive of tapes, showing various moments from their lives, be they Halloween celebrations or film re-enactments. There is something altogether eerie about it all: the kids seem happy with their lot, but also seem to be totally trapped within this horrible place. The Wolfpack presents a nightmare, and the people inside it don’t actually want to get out, so indentured have they become to it. They don’t want to go to school, having spent their lives being educated by their mother. They don’t want to go outside, having spent their lives being warned against it by their father.

Oscar Angula needed to be in this film more, though perhaps he wouldn’t give the director the chance. For the first half he is altogether absent: when he does appear, instead of the justifications the audience might be expecting, we get what amounts to rambling nonsense, the manifesto of a man whose rebellion against the system – that amounted to drunkenly avoiding work and maintaining his role as a dominant patriarch over this tiny slice of the world – has long since lost any kind of sense. The brothers’ obsession with films is fuelled by a great deal of access to them, and this inherent contradiction in Oscar’s reasoning is never explored.

The Wolfpack depicts a crucial point in the family’s history, as the boys start to finally realise that their alcoholic father, inferred to have been abusive, no longer has the kind of hold over them that he once did. So come the steps into the outside world: Mokunda gleefully relates his first crazy experience, wandering around Manhattan in a homemade mask, and ending up in a hospital when taken in by local cops. It’s the start of a rebellion that Oscar can’t contain, and by the time we have come to the moment The Wolfpack is depicting, he seems pathetically resigned to his “tribe” falling apart, his moments on camera more about blaming outside forces than himself. He’s a truly awful figure, and I didn’t like the rather easy ride Moselle gave him.

Moselle fails to go as far as she could have gone here.

Moselle fails to go as far as she could have gone here.

A more interesting figure is Suzanne. The shades of mental illness are all around The Wolfpack, and she seems to be in thrall to the man she married, to an incredibly unhealthy extent. She doesn’t leave, she’s expected to be the children teacher, and she’s cut off her own parents from her life: all the trappings of a cult in many respects. Like her children, Suzanne also starts to break a bit free as The Wolfpack goes on, but the indoctrination is stronger in her than it is in her offspring. She’s far from guiltless when it comes to their fate, and the overall state of her marriage seems to be based more on fear in the present day than anything, a situation left frustratingly unclear by the films conclusion.

Once you get used to the cramped surroundings, the longing looks out the window and the depictions of a family that seems desperate to present their situation as normal, you can begin to appreciate some of the meat and bones. The Angula’s recreate entire films in vivid ways: cereal boxes and other cardboard create props and costumes, some so realistic that it brings a police raid to their little world, a moment that is recalled with the air of a people who feel unfairly persecuted. A Batman costume is a particular treat, though its bit jarring how the films jumps to that, and the rather comical sight of Mokunda in it, after discussing Oscar’s abusive tendencies, and Mokunda’s distancing from him. Moselle seems to want to contrast this surreal scenario with seriousness, and I’m not sure it totally works. Batman is a cipher for the Angula’s, a character that seems to be the kind of person they want to be. Putting on is costume is a comfort, a piece of movie magic that lets them escape from humdrum reality. But it gets taken to an extreme at moments that is quite unsettling: a recreation of a scene from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in particular stands out in that regard.

The idea of the Angula’s acting like a persecuted minority has some weight. Their father wanted a tribe, and so similar are the Angula, in faces, hair, clothes and general attitude – even the spreading resentment manifests itself similarly in each young man – that you almost start to buy the idea of them being a cultural sub-set, one that struggles to reconcile their existence and lives with how the outside society they shun might view them. The police raid is a painful memory for some to recall, but also a galvanising one, as if it was the moment some of the boys realised their isolation had gone too far. But it also might make the audience question why Moselle has decided to focus exclusively on the Angulo’s: no police, no neighbours and no social workers get any kind of input here. It’s a disappointingly narrow lens to use.

As grim as I have made The Wolfpack out to be, there are happier moments, and the film generally is unexpectedly upbeat. It depicts the Angula siblings going outside after all, though such things are tinged with problems: a trip to the cinema is an obvious delight, but there’s something terribly affecting in how some of the boys are convinced they are being followed on the way home. A trip to Coney Island shows the boys can partake in normal activities the same as anyone else, but Mokunda remains frozen by the idea of actually entering the water himself. Baby steps I suppose, but I didn’t find much catharsis in these moments myself: maybe it was due to the way Moselle somewhat belabours the point, hitting the magic number of 90 minutes by drawing out things to an unnecessary level. That, and there is an obvious uncomfortableness in at times: some of the sons echo their father’s paranoia about the outside world, and even those that seem the most unhappy with his tyranny don’t seem all that far removed from it. The Wolfpack is more interesting in its opening half when looking at the Angulo’s as a group; later, it isn’t so enthralling.

The Wolfpack ends on a very bright note, with Mokunda looking into making his own films for a change, and even starting to interact with members of the opposite sex positively, something the film largely shies away from examining: I guess there was only so much Moselle would have been allowed to pry into, but you have to imagine there is some warped sexual development in there somewhere.

I didn’t see all of the greatness that others have claimed to see, instead witnessing an exploration of a very unique circumstance that doesn’t really hit the right notes as well as it could have. There is too much left unlooked at here: the darker aspects of having nine people trapped in such a contained space, the developmentally challenged sister, and what the future holds now that such circumstances can no longer be kept hidden.

That is not to say that The Wolfpack is a bad film, but it does have all the hallmarks of a documentarian who isn’t well-versed in the craft just yet: a meandering narrative, an uncertain timeline in the way that archival footage is cut in, a lack of harder questioning, unsure of what central point it wants to make, and failing to realise the potential of its premise. Issues of consent also cloud an appreciation of The Wolfpack, as the mental health of some its participants, never mind their young ages, raises some questions that might have disturbing answers. Some of the individuals in The Wolfpack need serious help, and others need authoritative intervention: maybe what they don’t need to a documentary that errs too much on the side of trite sentiment.

Not enough to justify itself.

Not enough to justify itself.

(All images are copyright of Magnolia Pictures).


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Ireland’s Wars: Waterloo

Waterloo is, in my opinion, every bit the great “decisive” battle that it is made out to be. The French Wars had appeared to peter out in 1813 and 1814, as Allied armies overran France and Napoleon’s military found itself unable to defend its homeland from attacks coming from multiple directions. But then Napoleon escaped his exile, seized back control in Paris with the greatest of ease, and rallied the previously dismissed “Grande Armee” for one more shot at Imperial glory and European dominance.

The result was Waterloo, a climax to the French Wars that, through the scale of the fighting, the number of men involved and the disparate types of combat, is a truly worthy curtain call for the period in question. And several Irish regiments, and many, many Irish soldiers, were present that day, the 18th of June 1815.

The backdrop to the battle does not need too much going into. When Napoleon retook France and re-declared his Empire, the countries debating Europe’s future at the ongoing Council of Vienna labelled him an outlaw and vowed to bring him to heel once again. The Seventh Coalition, of Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, the Dutch and a host of other smaller states, all committed themselves to a mass invasion of France.

Left with the choice of fighting a defensive war at home or striking out, Napoleon choose the offence. The initial moves were north, into the Low Countries, where Allied troops – British, Hanoverian, Dutch and others – under the command of Wellington had been gathered, along with a separate army of Prussians under their famous marshal Gebhhard Leberecht von Blucher. Napoleon hoped that a quick decisive victory would throw his enemies into disarray, raise rebellion in Belgium and perhaps present the possibility of his rule being recognised.

The resulting campaign, pre-Waterloo, is marked by two significant clashes. At Quatre Bras and Ligny, the French fought Wellington’s Allies and Blucher’s Prussians respectively, Napoleon seeking two separate victories before the two armies could join together. The French won partial victories, but no serious strategic gains: Wellington and Blucher took losses but retreated in good order, marching north parallel to the other. By the 17th, Napoleon had dispatched a large chunk of his army under Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to take care of the Prussians, whom he did not realise were not routing, while he retained the majority of his troops to face Wellington. The goal remained the same: defeat Wellington, turn around, and defeat the Prussians, taking care of the Allies in detail. Unwilling to continue a retreat north towards Brussels, Wellington set his army up just south of the hamlets of Mont-Saint-Jean and Waterloo, aiming to absorb the coming French attacks long enough for Blucher to tear into the French right.

The Waterloo battlefield was a wide one. Wellington’s force took positon on top of and behind a ridge to the north, and further occupied three key points ahead of them: the farmhouse of Hougoumont to the right, Le Haye Sainte in the centre, and the hamlet of Papelotte to the left. Napoleon, basing his HQ at an inn called Le Belle Alliance, massed his troops and prepared to attack, but remained mindful of the village of Plancenoit to his right, that lay directly in the path of the oncoming Prussians. Battle erupted in the late morning of the 18th.

The first serious fighting of the day took place to Hougoumont, on the French left and the British right.  Napoleon’s II Corps, under Marshal Honore Charles Reille, went forward in sections to attack the farmhouse, with Wellington responding with a constant stream of reinforcements and supplies. What might have started as a simple diversionary French attack, meant to draw Allied troops away from where the main blow was due to fall, sucked in a huge amount of troops by both sides in the course of the morning and afternoon: the French 88th Regiment d’Infanterie was likely involved in some capacity, part of Reille’s II Corps, a descendent unit from one of the Irish Brigade regiments, no longer Irish, but likely to have a much higher concentration of Irish and Irish-descended soldiers than other parts of Napoleon’s army. Regardless of how many troops Napoleon’s sent in that direction – probably over 14’000 before the end – Hougoumont held for the entire battle

Napoleon’s primary attack was actually going to come on his right flank, with his I Corps under Marshal Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon. Over 14’000 men advanced around 13:30, heading straight towards a mixture of British, Hanoverian, Dutch and Belgian troops, while otherslaunched an unsuccessful assault on Le Haye Sainte. Though they took heavy casualties in the advance, the French held firm, and, after the death of British General Thomas Picton, in command of that area, the Allied line began to buckle.

It was then that Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, commander of British cavalry and a future Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, ordered his heavy cavalry forward, acting on his own initiative, hoping to rescue a likely collapse in the Allied positon. Two brigades, the Household and the Union, charged at the attacking French infantry. The Union was so named because it consisted of an English, Scottish and Irish regiment: the 1st Royal Dragoons and Scots Greys were joined by the 6th Dragoons, “Inniskilliners”, a descendent of the Williamite militia cavalry that had once fought against James II in the War of the Two Kings. The overall Brigade was commanded by William Ponsonby, an Irishman.

The British heavy cavalry made up for their inexperience and general lack of composure with their skill at swordplay and quality of their mounts. 2’000 charging horses smashed into the French lines, who had been mostly unprepared for the assault, due to the ridgeline that had kept the cavalry concealed. Two eagles were captured in the initial fighting, and the French infantry thrown into disarray and flight. The 6th, in the centre of their own charge, had less success than the flanks as the particular French units they charged after were further back and in a better position to defend themselves: the Inniskilling Colonel, Joseph Muter, never got over his unit’s failure to capture an eagle, as the Royals and the Greys did.

A bigger problem was that Uxbridge lost complete control of his men, and had not even had the forethought to leave a reserve. His cavalrymen charged recklessly forward, ignoring calls for them to come back: soon the British cavalry was hopelessly lost all over the field, the charge having run out of momentum, the horses totally blown. Some had even gotten as far as the French artillery lines, despite the fact that they had neither the time, experience or means of capturing them or destroying them. Napoleon swiftly ordered a counter-attack with some of his own cavalry, light and lancers. The British were badly mauled in the process, with the Union Brigade suffering particularly badly. Ponsonby was captured during this time, and killed when a rescue was attempted: what elements of the Royals, Greys and Inniskilling that still could, fled back towards Allied lines, having stopped the French infantry assault at the cost of much of their own battle effectiveness. Nearly half of the British heavy cavalry were casualties, but so were 3’000 French, d’Erlon’s Corps scattered.

Elements of the British light cavalry went forward after the main charge, to support their heavier siblings in their retreat and to attempt to ward off the French. One of these units was the 12th Royal Dragoons. While not a named Irish unit, it had significant Irish connections, having been garrisoned in Ireland since its formation in 1715, as a response to the Jacobite rebellion of that year. The 12th suffered badly going up against French lancers, losing two-thirds of its overall strength in this attack: indeed, so vivid was the experience that the 12th would be reconstituted as a lance-wielding regiment the next year. The immense cavalry combat petered out soon after, but the French were only just getting started.

Next to get it was the more central part of the Allied line, with Marshal Michel Ney, seeing a withdrawal of casualties among the British and mistaking it for the beginnings of a retreat, ordering a large scale cavalry attack on that section of the enemy. Wellington responded the only way he could, ordering his infantry to “form square”, exactly as it sounds: the infantry regiments would form up into four sided boxes, several ranks deep, with a hollow space in the middle. With bayonets pointed outwards, the formations were an effective guard against cavalry attacks, as horses could not be driven to charge home against such an obstacle. The purpose of the many charges made – maybe as much as 12, although accounts differ – was to try and scare the squares into breaking, but the line held.

Things got more drastic though, as a second attack on Le Haye Sainte took the farmhouse, its defenders forced to withdraw after running out of ammunition. That left the French lines as close as 60 yards to that of the Allies at points, and Ney was thus able to organise a combined arms assault on the British squares, bringing up infantry and artillery.

Just north of Le Haye Sainte, occupying a position near a crossroads, was the 27th Regiment of Foot, another “Inniskilling” unit. They had the unfortunate position of being incredibly close to some higher ground that the French had seized, and were thus exposed to truly murderous fire, from an ever expanding group of infantry and cannon, not to mention the repeated attacks of the cavalry that aimed to pick them off one at a time. The British cavalry, so badly reduced already, could only offer so much support. Unable to break formation, as that would have resulted in them being easily ridden down, the 27th, like so many others, simply had to withstand.

And withstand they did, though at a truly terrible cost. The famous words of Edward Cotton still resonate, the officer of the 7th Hussars describing the 27th as “literally…lying dead in square”. The 27th lost two-thirds of its men as casualties in around four grim hours, the highest casualties of any unit at Waterloo: by the end of the day, the regiment was under the command of a lieutenant, and eight of its ten companies had no officers able to serve at all. But there’s was not an unnecessary sacrifice: had the 27th withdrawn or broken, the French would have been able to penetrate right into the heart of the Allied line, and likely would have been able to then force a more complete withdrawal. As it was, despite the immense punishment, the Allies held.

Though most of them did not know it at the time, salvation was at hand. To the north, Prussian troops under Hanz von Zieten had arrived, and now helped defend Papelotte from French attacks, and allowed Wellington to move elements of his left flank to reinforce the centre, while to the south, a Prussian Corps under Karl von Bulow now exited the Bois de Paris and attacked Plancenoit, threatening the right and rear of Napoleon’s position. The fighting in Plancenoit would be bitter for a few hours, the village changing hands a few times, as Napoleon threw some of what few troops he had left into holding off the oncoming tide for as long as possible.

That done, Napoleon played his final card: his hitherto undefeated Imperial Guard infantry, nominally his best troops, sent up the middle, just left of Le Haye Sainte, to try and smash a way through the Allied lines. The attack is one of the most famous of the period, and was repulsed by a combination of British and (less well reported) Dutch infantry. The sight of the Guard retreating had an electric effect on the rest of the French army, which began to fall back without much order. Wellington, seizing the moment, ordered a general advance of his entire army.

The last of the Irish regiments of Waterloo played their role here, with the 18th Hussars, aka, the Drogheda Light Horse, moving forward on the Allied left as part of the 6th Cavalry Brigade . This cavalry movement aimed to keep the French retreat going, and to combat those French cavalry units that were now attempting to cover that retreat. The 18th and others had partial success: the retreat was kept going, but they suffered bad enough losses in the process, the French cavalry still having enough energy and fight to occasionally turn and force the British backwards. Regrettably for the Allies, the failing light and the over exuberance of these units, now running into Prussians arriving from the east, resulted in numerous friendly fire incidents.

After a brutal bayonet-led struggle, Plancenoit fell to the Prussians for the last time, and Napoleon was obligated to fall back south with what was left of his army, Wellington and Blucher meeting at the same inn where the Emperor had been located during the battle. The Battle of Waterloo was over, the Allies having won a truly decisive victory.

The last footnote of Irish involvement is the Battle of Wavre, which took place the following day, to the east. Groucy’s force of French took on a Prussian army that was reduced owing to its numbers that had taken part at Waterloo. The 87th Regiment d’Infanterie, another descendent from the Irish Brigade, would have been present. Ironically considering the overall state of the campaign, Wavre was a French victory.

It didn’t matter. Napoleon was forced to retreat back to France with his armies, there finding that those that had previously backed him were now not so gung-ho. With the Allies marching into France and no popular will to either resist them or maintain the Emperors rule, Napoleon abdicated for the second time, and eventually wound up in a British guarded exile on the lonely island of Saint Helena, where he would die in 1821.

While the overall significance of Waterloo has been debated – a French victory there would not have been the end of the war, with 300’000 Austrian and Russian troops readying to invade the east of France – the Irish contribution is undeniable, and not just in the few regiments I have discussed. As previously stated, a huge portion of many other regiments present at the battle would have been Irish-born, and numerous officers too, not least Wellington himself. One infantry and two cavalry brigades were commanded by Irishmen, and battalions and regiments were littered with Irish officers. Having played their part in nearly every war between Britain and France through the previous century and a bit, it was fitting that the Irish should be so heavily present at their great conclusion.

And with that comes to an end this little section of Ireland’s Wars, though the 19th century will give plenty of opportunity to have a look at the experiences of Irish units in British service, and Irishmen in the service of other armies. The 18th century was a peaceful one in Ireland itself, for the most part, but that would come to an end at its very conclusion, 17 years before Waterloo, in 1798.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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The Works Of Shan Yu In “War Stories”

Did you ever read the works of Shan Yu?…Fancied himself quite the warrior-poet. Wrote volumes on war, torture, the limits of human endurance. He said: “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

“Shan Yu”, apparently some kind of despot from the timeline that Firefly takes place in, if not a reincarnation of a “Hun” warlord, does not sound like a very pleasant kind of guy. “War Stories” opens with Book discussing the man, in the words quoted above, with a distracted Simon, who doesn’t receive it very well: “Sadistic crap legitimised by florid prose” is how he describes it. But the episode quickly jumps to the returning Adelai Niska from “The Train Job” discussing the same “warrior-poet” with one of his unfortunate victims.

The theme of the episode is set then, and we might put it in a more palatable way than Shan Yu did: Is the true measure of a person in their everyday deeds or in their actions during a crisis? That we only truly discover ourselves and what we are made of – our true levels of competence, capability and moral righteousness – in times of distress, worry, discomfort or peril is a sentiment that is nothing new. Many would disagree with the idea, but Firefly, in “War Stories”, takes the thought and runs with it, as so much visual fiction does. After all, such fiction can only exist with conflict, and with the depiction of how characters change in the course of conflict. And “War Stories” has conflict to spare, and we see the true measure of Serenity’s crew in the crisis that unfolds.

Mal is the over-riding focus in the traditional Shan Yu sense, held over the volcano’s edge by Niska through prolonged physical torture: electroshock, cutting and that strange three pronged device. Niska is a sadist out to make an example and indulge in his own horrific interest, outside of any utterance that he is looking for the “real” Malcolm Reynolds, but we do get to see a very interesting side of Mal here: a man who looks out for others above himself, doing everything that he can to buoy up Wash’s spirits and prevent the pilot from breaking under the attacks, even to the point of enraging him. He doesn’t protest when Wash is given his freedom, and seems resigned to his own painful death, remaining chipper and sarcastic all the way to the finale, the only kind of resistance he can give.

But when given the opportunity, he is able to break free and showcase his own strength, which Niska could not eliminate totally. When he asks a terrified Niska “You want to meet the real me now?” it’s both inspiring and terrifying: this bloodied angry individual, with murder on his mind, and a lot of pain to make up for. The true Mal is a fighter, the some person who fought and lost the war, and in “War Stories” we get a brief glimpse of the kind of person who will come to the fore in Serenity, showcasing “something new” about his personality that others have not seen.

The other major focus, of course, is Wash. The episode spends a lot of time on the state of his marriage, and his worries over the closeness of Zoe and Mal. When undergoing torture at the hands of Niska, Wash suffers more than Mal, and is only prevented from suffering a mental collapse by the carefully chosen barbs of the captain. One might think that in escaping Wash would find relief and happiness in being alive, and leave it at that. But Wash is more than just the snarky pilot, bitching about the way his wife treats Mal in comparison to him. He has that familial bond with Mal, and despite any other differences they might have, he is perfectly willing to risk his life again in trying to save Mal, facing overwhelming odds and committing acts of violence that are far beyond him (in comparison to, say, “Heart Of Gold”). Wash, the true Wash, is a loyal man, to his wife first and to his friends beyond that.

Zoe, the calm, capable soldier, shows a measure of commitment to Wash and personal strength in “War Stories” that might make this the most memorable episode for her. She enters the lion’s den to get her “men” back, and doesn’t hesitate for a moment when asked to pick between them, having the fortitude to leave Mal behind because she knows that’s what he wants. She doesn’t hesitate later either, and takes the lead in rescuing her sergeant, their bond long having been established. But she also does take Wash with her, exhibiting a trust that serves as a nice bookend to the friction of the episodes beginning.

The rest of the crew, barring Inara (strangely absent from the second half of the episode, which I always found strange), all arm up and join the fight too. Jayne expresses open disdain for the plan to rescue Mal, and much of what we’ve seen of him so far in the series would indicate that he would not take part in the venture. But he does own Mal something (his life) after “Ariel”, and “War Stories” does depict him as showing his own kind of remorse for his actions before any crisis rears its head. Jayne might not be fully loyal to Mal, but he does honour favours.

Book, with his mysterious past getting more and more mysterious, also arms up without hesitation, only choosing to shoot non-lethally when he can. For him, rescuing the captain is an act of moral obligation, with Niska being a madman who needs to be stopped, though with a minimum of bloodshed if it can be accomplished. Simon, like Jayne, also owes Mal a lot, and marches into battle as well, though with less effectiveness than the others. But he still picks up a gun and shoots, an act almost anathema to his existence as a doctor. Book and Simon both have a lot of reasons for not getting involved, but in the crisis they show resoluteness and decisiveness in act.

And then there is Kaylee. Poor sweet, innocent Kaylee, who clearly doesn’t know how to use a firearm properly but goes along anyway, out of love and loyalty for her captain. Her combat paralysis strikes at a bad moment, but that’s Kaylee: she simply isn’t capable of being the go to person in a firefight, breaking down and cowering in the face of enemy fire. That doesn’t make her a bad person, or even weak. But it does make her human.

And, as I discussed, there is River. Her reaction to the unfolding events seems to be one of incomprehension and childlike glee, treating the assault on the skyplex as some kind of game she is involved in, like the chase she had with Kaylee earlier. We do meet an unseen, and “true” aspect of River in the course of “War Stories”: a dangerous Alliance-created side, which even she seems to be mostly unaware of.

Is Shan Yu right then? To an extent seems to be the answer. The true measure of Serenity’s crew does come to the fore in “War Stories”, but, at the same time, it is important to separate the person you might be day to day and the person you are when the bullets start flying. The difference between those two – and in Mal’s case, it is a crucial one, as we will see – will drive a lot of what is to come.

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Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Gentleman spies are back in business. Sort of.

Gentleman spies are back in business. Sort of.

It’s the most wonderful time of year: when films that I missed out on previously suddenly start popping up all over the place on various streaming options (and there are more in the pipeline, believe me). Matthew Vaughn’s spy/action thriller was something that I was really hoping to check out when it was released theatrically in January, but amid all of the Oscar-bait and other things, the opportunity slipped. But that’s what God invented streaming for. So, would Kingsman: The Secret Service prove to be as good as the critics said it was at the time? Or is just another tired spy film, with unworthy pretensions of being something more, with a clunky title to boot?

“Eggsy” (Taron Egerton) is, politely put, a low-income Londoner, whose circumstances have largely prevented him from achieving much with his life. But things change when he is brought to the attention of Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a leading member of the “Kingsmen”: a secret espionage operation of “gentleman spies”, who have a vacancy in their ranks. As Eggsy undergoes a gruelling selection process, the Kingsmen tackle the megalomaniacal schemes of billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).

Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Kingsman is the kind of film that neither desires, nor cares about my criticism. Perhaps the most powerful praise that I could give the film is that it is fully confident in what it is and in what it wants to portray, which is zany, colourful spy fun, in the line of things that came several decades ago, just with updated CGI and stunts. Vaughn and the people that he had around him were clearly inspired by the Bond films of Connery and company, and sought to create something with kind of feeling – indeed, such things are directly referenced several times in the course of the film – with all of the razzle dazzle that 2015 can inject into it.

But the most powerful criticism that I could then lay at the feet of Kingsman, whether there is any point to it or not, is that the film struggles with being both a homage to those kind of pictures and also a parody, and it essentially tries to do the same thing with the more modern brand if spy thriller too: paying tribute and lampooning, and struggling to reconcile the two aspects. Sure, you can laugh at the gadgets, but then the extreme bloodshed in the second half brings right back down to reality. There are quips and puns aplenty, but there is also a seriousness that borders on the sombre at other moments, even as even spy trope and cliché is trotted out. The meta way that Kingsman goes about its business is entertaining only to a point: even in the villain’s final words the film is still struggling to decide whether it wants to be “inspired by” or “making fun of”. At points, it simply stops making any kind of sense, and becomes far too concerned with, essentially, talking to itself, with all of the nods and winks to the spy thrillers of old.

But you do need to appreciate some of those details, since the actual story of Kingsman is the basic enough stuff of a recruit going through training and becoming something more than he previously was, this kind of plot merely a cipher for every over the top action sequence or crazy exchange of dialogue. All of the expected beats are here: the escape from mediocrity, the assholish fellow recruits, the girl fellow recruit, the crazy training tasks, the tests of loyalty, the mad villain with an even madder plan, etc, etc.

The film gains a lot from Jackson's madcap performance in the antagonist role.

The film gains a lot from Jackson’s madcap performance in the antagonist role.

But at every point Kingsman is trying to turn the tables on itself. You might expect there to be a predictable love plot between Eggsy and fellow Kingsman trainee Roxy (a passable Sophie Cookson, who doesn’t have all that much to do) but instead Vaughn takes things in an expected, and incredibly low-brow, direction late on, which was legitimately funny despite its crudity. I won’t say more, other than to say that if Kingsman is trying to ape the spy films of days long past, its treatment of female characters is bang on the money, insofar as they are barely characters at all.

If it is over the top action you have come for, boy will you get it, and in spades: Colin Firth proceeds to kick, punch, throw and shoot his way through a horde of not very likeable people, with one sequence, set to “Freebird”, a particular horror show, arms, legs get chopped off at a consistent rate and mothers try to knife baby daughters. Vaughn’s method of keeping the camera largely locked on the central character an interesting way of presenting the visceral back and forth with the named protagonists, something carried forward to the fantastical and bloody bullet ridden sequence that forms the ending, when the crimson mixes with a dazzling array of colures that only partially deflects the sheer horror you might be feeling. Vaughn is no stranger to this, you only have to look as far as the 11 year old killing machine he put on screen in Kick-Ass. It’s hard to be a comedy and have this much of a body-count by the end, no matter how nice the suit you wrap it all up in: this film is no Spy, which was a comedy-espionage entity that meshed the two opposites much better.

If Kingsman has a deeper point to make through the story of lowly Eggsy, a diamond in the rough in every respect, it’s that societal conflict between the haves and have nots is not something that can be brushed under the carpet, and that the perception of such a struggle is as important as the struggle itself. Kingsman depicts a world where this struggle goes to laughable extremes, absurd in the malevolence of the 1% and in the gory retribution that inevitably follows when the other 99% decide to pick up some special forces training. The subtlety of the point is a bit lost amid the mayhem of exploding heads, assassins with blades for feet, President Obama being right on-board with mass genocide and umpteen other crazy elements, but it is there nonetheless. Eggsy is from the low and is brought into the high, but he differs himself from others by reconciling his past and present successfully, becoming a better man than what he used to be.

Egerton is pretty good in the lead role, doing a damn sight better with the enlarged screentime here than he did with his more reduced role in Legend. Eggsy is a chav through and through, but Egerton makes us understand that he really does have a good side, and that such people are better judged on a more complex metric than first impressions. He carries the film through some of its more radically odd moments, and has some great comic timing to boot.

The film has a large and diverse supporting cast, some of which, like Mark Hamill, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine, are essentially in cruise mode. But others, like Colin Firth and the gloriously cartoonish Samuel L. Jackson, positively glowing in his portrayal of internet billionaires/eccentric genocide planner Valentine, are having a ball with every trope and silly aspect thrown their way, tying in nicely to the films overall abandonment of any kind of seriousness in the way it approaches things.

It is in the script that Kingsman really does do its best work though, with Vaughn teaming up with X-Men alum Jane Goldman to bring Mark Miller’s somewhat different source material to the big screen in a way that maximises its appeal as a spy thriller, but also contains plenty of laughs. Hart’s stunning dressing down of Christian fundamentalist – “I’m a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend…” – Eggsy’s continuing irreverence for everything stoic going on around him – “Oh, like My Fair Lady…” – and any of Valentine’s bombastic speeches, extolling the virtue of genocide. The script, if I may use an overused phrase, “pops” in just the right way, and while it is a major factor in the overall schizo nature of the tone and recurring themes, it’s still something to be enjoyed. Less good is the music from Henry Jackson and Matthew Margeson, which sounds like a rather lame attempt to ape the work of Alan Silvestri on Avengers, right down to some of the repeating motifs.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is not a really great movie. I found it a tad over-rated, the kind of thing sailing by the back of mocking other works, even as it tries to frame itself as a continuation of the same works. The plots weak, some of the cast can’t be bothered and women are treated rather badly. But, it is not a bad movie either. The action is great, the script is great, when the humour works it’s very funny and the key members of the cast – Egerton, Firth and Jackson – simply get the kind of film that they were tasked with making, with scenery-chewing performances to match. Matthew Vaughn has directed and written better films, but at least Kingsman is a memorable experience. A partial recommendation.

An acquired taste.

An acquired taste.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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Ireland’s Wars: Napoleon’s Irish Legion

Napoleon Bonaparte was a singular individual, every inch the “great man” who did more than anyone else to inspire that particular approach to history. Having won a serious reputation during many martial exploits, Napoleon seized power in Paris in 1799, eventually declaring himself Emperor, and proceeded to wage war against a huge chunk of his European neighbours: The Dutch, numerous German states, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Spain, Portugal. And, of course, perhaps his most implacable opponent, the one that would dog him and his efforts at European supremacy the most, through its command of the seas and its infantry operations in the Iberian Peninsula: Great Britain.

It would not be all that wrong to say that, for a period between 1803 and 1805, Bonaparte was obsessed with the idea of bringing Britain to heel, by sending his gigantic armed forces across the channel and bringing the fight to British soil. It was the old dream, which had so haunted and dominated the strategic thinking of so many French martial figures throughout the 18th century. If only the channel could be crossed. If only the weather could be guaranteed. If only the Royal Navy was not as powerful as it was. Like so many others, Napoleon was seduced by the idea of getting an army across the water, where he was sure his own genius and fighting spirit of his men would be more than enough to take care of a Britain with such a substandard army – as so many viewed it at that time – unused to fighting on their own turf.

And part of that was the potential of utilising the “back door” of Ireland. The 1798 violence, which will be at the centre of the next segment of this series so I will refrain from too much comment, indicated that much support for a French landing might be found in Ireland, provided the landing was done in force, with enough troops to actually take care of the British on the island. Having such a foothold in the then British Isles would be a godsend, and would make any further decisive thrust in the direction of England easier. Like many before him who has entertained the idea, Napoleon realised that such a task would be made easier if the invasion was spearheaded by Irish troops, the Emperor the kind of man who had no problem incorporating non-French elements into his armed forces, provided he was sure that they would be loyal to him. If Irish troops took the lead, the natives might view the invasion as a liberation instead of a conquering, and every Irishman in service meant a French soldier did not have to be used.

The net did not have to be cast too wide to find volunteers for such a force: it has not really been all that long since the Irish Brigade had been disbanded, and what Napoleon was trying to build was essentially the same thing, just with a bit more of an Imperial flavour. Initially just of battalion size, but then expanded to a regiment, what became known as the “Irish Legion” or the  “3e Regiment Etranger (Irlandais)” would be around 2’000 men in size, made of a mixture of former soldiers of the Irish Brigade, French descendants of Irish emigrants, refugees and political exiles from the 1798 rebellion, Irish prisoners of war or press-ganged sailors, British deserters, and a host of other nationalities, especially Poles (indeed, Poles were probably a majority in the Legion eventually, but were officered by Irish). With green uniforms and a regimental motto of “Irish Independence”, it could never be mistaken what the unit was supposed to represent, even if its language for day to day operations was French. Napoleon seemingly thought so much of the idea that he presented the Legion with an Imperial Eagle, the equivalent of a colour in other armies, the only foreign regiment of his army to be given such an honour. The unit was initially commanded by General Bernard MacSheedy, a Dubliner and veteran of the French Revolutionary Army, though his overall expertise was seriously questioned by others. Later, following MacSheedy’s death in battle, an Italian born commander, Antoine Petrezzoli became the Legion’s leader, and there followed a succession of Irish figures: Daniel O’Meara, William Lawless, John F. Mahoney and Hugh Ware.

When it came to the Legion’s primary reason for being, as with so many previous French plans for such an invasion, it all come to nought. Napoleon’s overall scheme called for a rather unlikely dash from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and back again, by French naval forces to draw their British opponents away from the channel, and the whole thing went awry almost as soon as it had started. A series of British naval victories – ay Cape Finesterre and, actually after Napoleon had given up on the invasion, Trafalgar – left the French Navy wrecked and in need of serious rebuilding before it would ever be in a position to credibly challenge their most deadly opponents, let alone safeguard a massive invasion force all the way to Ireland. Dissapointed, Napoleon was obligated to abandon his pretensions of invading Britain – for the time being anyway – and instead focus on conquests elsewhere, in the Iberian peninsula, and in the east, in the hodgepodges of principalities and city-states that made up modern day Germany in the early 1800’s. The Legion spent most of its existence up to that point on the French coast, waiting for an invasion that would never come, with associated discipline and morale problems due to the inherent boredom, and some of the more disreputable elements that were part of the Legion. But, in 1807, it was sent east.

The First Battalion was the first element of the unit to see action, serving in the 1809 “Walcheren Campaign”, a little remembered British expedition to try and help their continental allies fighting much more pivotal battles in other areas. The Irish had spent nearly two years as part of the many garrisoning Walcheren Island, an element of the system of fortifications defending the vital port of Antwerp. The British who had landed on Walcheren drove the French forces back inside the town of Flushing, where a French fleet was moored, and besieged it for just over two weeks, an active operation involving an intense bombardment. The Irish acquitted themselves well in facing several British assaults, but could do nothing to stop the inevitability of the French surrender. The majority of the 1st Battalion, what was left after the casualties from battle and disease (malaria was a potent killer in that campaign), went into captivity in Britain. Most of what Irish had existed in the Legion were casualties in that campaign, and it was only with some difficulty that the Eagle was saved from capture also. It did the British little good: with Allied defeats elsewhere in Europe, and the debilitating effects of the same maladies that had so badly damaged the French, the garrison was forced to withdraw before the end of the year. Part of the expeditionary force had been none other than the 88th Foot, the Connacht Rangers.

The Legion next saw combat in Spain. The 2nd Battalion would spend four years there, from 1807 to 1811, fighting in the Peninsular War against Spanish, Portuguese and British enemies. The opening blows they struck in Spain were less than glorious, helping to stamp out the famous “Dos de Mayo” rising in Madrid, where around 1’500 people were killed, many after the fighting had ceased. The following years were often spent on guard or escort duty, helping fight the “little war” against the bands of partisans who terrorized the French occupier during the conflict. There were plenty of Irish on the other side, this Spanish War of Independence being the real last gasp of the Spanish Irish Regiments, many of whom served admirably at crucial moments, though the Irish character of the regiments had long since been eroded: they would be disbanded in 1818 for this reason.

It was not until April of 1810, after a 3rd Battalion had been formed and sent to Spain, that the Irish Legion was engaged in significant combat operations. The Legion besieged the Portuguese town of Astorga, a British supply base, at that time, an operation in which they were joined by the 88th and 92nd French infantry regiments, those successors to the Irish Brigade. Three weeks of entrenchments and bombardment opened up a workable breach, attacked and seized by a company of riflemen – “voltigeurs” in French – led by Captain John Allen, a 1798 veteran. The attack is famous for the reported detail of a Legion drummer boy continuing to beat a charge despite having both legs blown off by cannon fire.

The old enemy of disease inflicted far more casualties on the Legion than Spanish bullets, with the units in Spain reduced to around 350 men by 1811. These were present at the Siege of Almeida, a French victory which forced Arthur Wellesley’s British to retreat back into Portugal. The French pursued, and the Legion was present at the British victory at Bussaco, where they may have come into brief contact with the Connacht Rangers, who distinguished themselves in that clash. The Legion did not so much, and elements of the 88th record finding wounded Legion soldiers, and being surprised at finding that none of them were actually Irish.

The months of campaign, suffering terribly from combat, guerrilla activity and disease, left the 3rd Battalion wrecked, the unit disbanded shortly after, merged into the 2nd Battalion. By the end of 1811, the same fate had befallen the 2nd Battalion, and the Legion itself was withdrawn from Spain. Reorganised and filled with new recruits – most of them German – the Legion then became part of central European campaigns.

The Legion, luckily enough, missed Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, but were part of the French military campaigns that attempted to salvage something from the aftermath. The Legion served against advancing Russian Cossack units in Saxony, were part of the force that captured Wurzen, and then defended the Elbe River crossings. At the Battle of Reichenbach Legion squares drove off Russian cavalry charges, and then at Bautzen were part of a general advance that drove enemy forces back. In 1813, now fighting in Poland, they attacked enemy forces across the Bober River and took Goldberg Hill, before having to withstand brutal assaults in squares again, at the Battles of Lowenburg.

The campaign, despite numerous small victories, was not a winning one for the French. After defeat at the Battle of Katzbach in August of 1813, the Legion was left pinned against the Bober River, facing a massive oncoming Russian/Prussian force. The majority of the Legion was destroyed in the action, firing until they ran out of ammunition, and then attempting to swim the river: 1’400 of them were killed, drowned, or captured. 117 survivors marched west, from the 2’000 or so that joined the “Grande Armee” eight months previously. The Legion was clobbered back into a Battalion level entity by the merging of battalions and soldiers from other, deactivated, regiments.

The Legion’s service wound down with more defensive duties around Antwerp, before Napoleon’s first abdication brought the fighting to an end. Stationed near Boulogne in the interim, the Legion remained in being following the Bourbon Restoration, hiding their Imperial Eagle and begrudgingly dealing with British demands that “Irlandais” be removed from their official title. A natural division grew between those still loyal to the exiled Emperor and those who were happy to pledge their service to the newly emplaced Louis XVIII. The Legion was thus split into pieces during the “Hundred Days”, with some remaining true to Louis, but most declaring for the returned Napoleon. One officer noted that the Legion would be perfectly willing to escort the fleeing King to the frontiers of France, but could not contemplate taking up arms with those it saw as the enemy, to attack France, their “adopted country”. It mattered little: the Legion spent those months as they had begun, on coastal defence duty, missing Waterloo entirely, perhaps because Napoleon had ordered the non-Irish members of the Legion to be sent to other units.

Following Napoleon’s second downfall, the Legion was corned by Allied troops at Montreuil, surrendering without a fight. Louis would not forgive the disloyalty of the existing foreign regiments, and had them all disbanded following his return from the temporary exile force upon him. The Irish Legion ceased to exist in September 1815, its flags and Eagle destroyed, its remaining soldiery incorporated into the “4th Royal Foreign Regiment”, a precursor of the modern French Foreign Legion. The class of Irish or Irish descended officers in French surface would not be entirely eroded, but would now be drastically drawn down or forced out of the French military, possibly under pressure from the British. The 125 year history of Irish units in French service was over.

The Legion was not truly an Irish unit, in the same way that the Irish Brigade had been for much of its existence. But it was largely led by Irish, and served admirably in many tight spots, from Portugal in the west to the borders of Poland in the east. Wracked by discipline problems and recruitment issues, the Legion could never really have been the equal to the Brigade, and its role in the Dos de Mayo rebellion is a nasty black mark from a modern perspective. But when called upon to fight, the Legion was able to fight, even when the enemy it was fighting had overwhelming numbers. Its service in eastern Germany and Poland as the French colossus began to contract is an under noticed aspect of Irish service in French armies, even if it was all for a cause that had already been struck with a mortal blow.

The Legion did not get to take part in Waterloo, that last major explosion of violence in these long French Wars, but plenty of Irishmen did, wearing the uniforms of both Britain and France. Before I draw my coverage of this period to a close, it is worth taking a closer look at that most famous clash of arms, and the role that Irish regiments had to play, fighting for Wellington and Napoleon.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Firefly: River’s Powers And “War Stories”

“War Stories” seems as good a place as any to take stock of the River character. She plays a small (in terms of screen time) role in that most action packed of Firefly’s episodes, but it is a crucial one, as she, without too much effort, kills three of Niska’s gun-wielding henchmen, saving (and horrifying) Kaylee in the process. The moment is a stunning swerve on the character, who thus far has been mostly portrayed as, by the “leaky brainpan” description, as incapable of really looking after herself. The moments where she actually has made an impact – the conversation with Badger in “Shindig”, or the escape from the hospital in “Ariel” – have been notably non-violent.

But the sudden outburst of precision death causing in “War Stories” suddenly puts River front and centre in the audience’s mind, in a way that she might not have completely been previously. We might have cause to look back over previous episodes, and think about the things that River is capable of doing.

First and foremost, she is remarkably intelligent, and demonstrates this on numerous occasions, not least in that conversation with Badger. As I said in my discussion on that episode here, the scene of Holmesian in the way that River, after only a few casual glances in Badger’s direction, is able to apparently deduce a lot of information about him, information she then uses to her advantage. Further, her random utterances contain a level of verbosity and cleverness, despite being lost in random mania, which belies a woman who is far smarter than she might initially appear.

But of course, it’s all tied into “reading”, though we won’t get into that for a little while yet (in fact, Firefly will really only go into properly in its last episode, where it is depicted in strange Satreian terms). We’ve seen glimpses of it so far in the series, most notably in “Safe”, when River is able to find out things about a mute girl that she could not possibly have found out otherwise. The episode seems to be dismissed in the aftermath, Simon not willing to look into further. But it shows that whatever the Alliance did to her in their “Academy” involved giving her the ability to read minds. The exact process of this will be looked into in “Objects In Space”, and is far from straightforward, but is seemingly connected to her lack of an amygdala, the section of the human brain that Simon describes as being a “filter” for emotions.

River’s apparent powers go beyond even that though. In “Bushwhacked” she appears to realise the derelict survivor – or Mal – is coming back on-board the ship before anyone else. In “Out Of Gas” she appears to know about the catastrophic engine failure just before it happens, a precognition that might be explained away with her simple higher awareness of everything going on around her, but is still oddly specific, going unremarked upon by the rest of the crew afterwards. Certainly, the way that she fights in Serenity, besting veritable hordes in unarmed combat, could be easily explained if she had even a limited knowledge of things that were about to happen before they did. Somewhat similarly, in “Bushwhacked” she forms a connection with the derelict vessel that borders on otherworldly in its depiction, as if she is aware of things that the rest of the crew is not aware of, like the deaths of its previous inhabitants. In “Ariel”, she seems to understand something innate about Jayne in the aftermath of his betrayal, something she will follow up on later in “Trash”, with that memorable line “Also, I can kill you with my brain”. It’s likely a bluffed threat more than a statement of fact, but it does make you wonder.

And then in “War Stories” she picks up a gun, looks away, and fires three shots, killing three goons, before acting in a manner that seems to indicate she doesn’t really know or understand what she has just done. It’s a tipping point for the character, when she stops being static and cared for by others, and jumps into the action properly, becoming a factor on the ship that is beyond a worry, and maybe a danger, something that will provide the backbone of the plot for Serenity. When River utters that haunting phrase “No power in the ‘verse can stop me”, with that slightly deranged smile, it makes the viewer question just how true that statement might be.

It’s clear enough that the Alliance had uses in mind for River: the common idea being the creation of a highly intelligent, mind-reading assassin/spy. Only the efforts to create this being went awry and ruined her sanity, or maybe that was the point. The film will get a bit clearer with it all (but not crystal clear) but this far into the series we are left with an enigma: the girl with the gun in her hand, smiling after committing an act of calculated violence that would be impossible for any other member of the crew.

So, on-board Serenity we have a troubled young girl, not fully in control of herself mentally or physically, with abilities that might include limited precognition, gun skills with mathematical precision and a way of reading the minds of others, not to mention an already existing high level of intelligence. The question to be asked is whether River is saveable: is she to be anything other than a weapon, or is she more human that she appears? Firefly never got the chance to fully elaborate on this potential plot idea, with the events depicted in Serenity essentially the quick version of a five season plan, which could have branched off into a myriad of different directions. If Firefly had been given a longer life, would River ever have gotten “better”? Would she have become the proficient marital artist in a different way? How would her growingly obvious talents have been used by the crew, and how would this have affected the interpersonal relationships on the ship? To what extent would she have become aware of her powers, or would she have remained, for some time to come, essentially a kid with a gun, uncomprehending of the things she can do and the effects they can cause? Serenity gives us a glimpse of this – a good glimpse, a very good glimpse – but in the context of a show that should have lasted several years more than it did, we might understand that a grander exploration of River and her abilities was missed out on.

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Review: Suffragette



Carey Mulligan is great, but is it enough to make the film great too?

Carey Mulligan is great, but is it enough to make the film great too?

It took me a while to get round to Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s effort to put the struggle for female suffrage in the early 20th century on screen. Admittedly, I felt a little unenthused by the prospect, the posters not exactly enticing and the above trailer making the story look, I hope I may be forgiven for saying, a bit sexed up, what with the explosions and all. But, as Suffragette neared the end of its run in Irish cinemas – by the time I saw it, I was joined by just two others in the screen, and both of them men – I realised that I needed to practise a bit more of what I preached: here was a film, Oscar-bait or no, that featured a majority female cast depicting a very female issue, the exact kind of thing that Hollywood should be doing more of. Indeed, the paucity of promotional efforts might well be a symptom of that very particular malaise in the industry when it comes to such projects, so I felt duty bound to give Suffragette a shot.

London, 1912: Maud (Carey Mulligan) is a laundry worker, barely making ends meet with husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), in an extremely harsh environment. After befriending fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and chemist Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter), Maud gets sucked into the suffragette moment, women committed to acts of civil disobedience in order to win the right to vote. Targeted by the police, headed by Detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson), but inspired by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud faces a choice between her family and her principles.

Gavron’s vision involves taking the focus away from the real life personalities of the suffragette movement and instead placing it on the fictional, or at least semi-fictional, with Mulligan’s Maud the kind of character designed to showcase the state of some women’s lives in Edwardian Britain and encapsulate a range of experiences. There are some historical productions where this might not work, but it does in Suffragette, where Maud and her troubles – an hostile work environment, sexist pay structures, a non-existent political voice, sexual abuse and an unequal marriage – end up providing the audience with a brief window into the wide range of problems that the suffragette movement became bound up in, that goes far beyond the issue of winning the vote.

Suffragette works on that level, and as a decent character study, exploring the creeping radicalisation of Maud as part of the movement. The film starts with Maud witnessing suffragettes smashing the windows of a department store, destroying an idyllic scene of a family at a beach, killing tradition if ever I saw such an example. She is repulsed by the violence, but also enticed: there follows a slow fall down the rabbit hole, from satisfied wife and worker to armed rebel, and the film is smart enough to leave room for doubt on whether such a fall is a good or a bad thing for Maud personally, though the overall righteousness of the suffragette movement is made plain.

The contrast with real-life personalities is rather jarring. Emmeline Pankhurst, despite her prominent place in the films promotional material, exists in the film in a single scene, and while an effective one, you might feel that such a limited use of Meryl Streep is a bit of a waste. Of course, in the context of the “rank and file” of the suffragette movement, only this brief glimpse of Pankhurst makes sense, but those looking forward to a typically immense Streep performance will be left disappointed. Similarly, Natalie Press as Emily Davison has only a limited role to play in proceedings until her fateful moment, to the extent that those unfamiliar with history might be confused as to why the film suddenly makes a big deal out of her presence.

The sense of injustice that drives Suffragette is a mounting thing, usually preceded by an appeal to the existing authorities, appeals that fall on deaf ears. Maud, in a powerful early moment, dictates testimony of her life to David Lloyd George; she’s enraptured and inspired by the experience, but when the same politician casually dismisses the idea of female suffrage later, the truncheons of police are the next thing to be experienced.

Her husband is barely sympathetic to start with, a slimy weak individual played with the right sense of gutlessness by Whishaw, and all too quickly chooses the disintegration of their marriage rather than suffer the disgrace and social shunning that comes with being connected to the suffragettes. It is a familial subplot that touches forced melodrama at points, but keeps Maud’s narrative journey grounded, and forms a neat contrast with the more supportive husband of Bonham-Carter’s character. And the police are happy to use violence – whether it is directly or through arrests and force-feeding, horrifically highlighted late on – while ignoring the crude sexual advances made by men like those in charge of the laundry Maud is employed at.

The police form an interesting part of Suffragette, through Gleeson’s detective. He’s obviously Irish – indeed, I feel like Gleeson overplayed his accent a bit to get the point across – and while you can sense some sympathy for the suffragette argument emanating from Steed at times, his intense commitment to the law, procedure and the orders of superiors, make him a dangerous adversary, Javert-like in his enthusiasm for insuring order, or at least protecting those he sees as vulnerable to dangerous ideas. Steed seems to know he is fighting a losing battle to an extent, but also isn’t completely wrong when he attempts to get inside Maud’s head by drawing comparisons between the suffragette movement and the Irish Fenians, in the way they target those in vulnerable positions for recruitment, by dangling the possibility of a better future, while downplaying the risks and penalties involved in seeking it. Certainly, women in Maud’s position will risk more than those in the upper-class. Steed is ultimately a realist: when he cuts Maud off when she complains about the sexual abuse of the laundry owner, telling her that no one cares what she has to say, he isn’t saying it out of cruelty or malice, but merely pointing out the reality of the situation, and not wanting to sugarcoat it.

Of course, it’s hard to really cast a great deal of moral doubt on this story. The suffragettes move from rock throwing to blowing up post boxes and cutting telegraph wires, and to a few more explosive actions later on, but no lives are lost: in return, they suffer the most flagrant oppression, and all in the cause of stopping half the population from voting for no other reason than their perceived lack of ability to comprehend politics. The suffragette movement is depicted as having an air of insurgency about it, without ambushes and killings, and the Fenian comparison reinforces this.

The police efforts to bring them down, with targeted arrests, the effort to erode organisational and emotional supports, and always an eye on political repercussions, is a counter-insurgency campaign  in most respects, and one that is doomed to failure. When you see suffragettes in prison watched and abused by female guards, its smacks of using locals to quell guerrillas. Beyond the bombs and the bullying, this is a war of conviction: Steed lacks a bit of it as time goes on, but Maud and her fellow fighters do not. When she says, defiantly, “We will win” to Steed during an interview, she really means it, whether she is “fodder” or not.

Gleeson is the best of the supporting cast, with a complex detective character.

Gleeson is the best of the supporting cast, with a complex detective character.

Part of that is down to Mulligan of course, a fine actress who has made quite the name for herself over the past few years. It seems like a long time since she was catapulted to broader attention in Doctor Who’s “Blink”, but her current status as a leading actor is well-earned, as her performance here proves. It takes a good actor to showcase a dramatic and near-total change in a character over the course of a film, and Mulligan does that, without gaps in the tale. Every abuse and injustice forms the person that Maud becomes, and Mulligan is there with every tear, every defiant shout and every emotionally deadened response to the same persecution, to make Maud somebody who undergoes that most terrible of metamorphosis, an accidental guerrilla, forced into such a role by the society around her. Duff and Bonham-Carter are serviceable in their parts, but not exactly setting the screen on fire – Bonham-Carter, in particular is very understated in this outing – and it is left to Mulligan to really carry the acting weight.

While I was enjoying Suffragette, the film has serious problems with its last act, or lack thereof. I will endeavour to explain without ruining the film’s plot for the uninitiated, but the perfect moment to form the conclusion of a second act, with the associated crises preceding a final triumphant victory, instead forms the conclusion of the film total, as if the production team had ran out of time at 106 minutes and couldn’t actually fit in a finale (the film also makes a certain choice with how that event is depicted, which is bound to provoke some controversy). Of course, women did get the vote in Britain, but the final moves towards that goal – such as, to name just the biggest missing element, women’s service during the First World War – are ignored completely, Suffragette instead taking a major moment in the movement that should have been depicted as a primary inciting act in the victory of the suffragettes as the endpoint, as if it and it alone was responsible. That this moment involved a character poorly fleshed out beforehand, with Maud and Steed serving as mere spectators, made it all the most surprising, considering the general quality of what went before.

Of course, what the film doesn’t really do, is paint a picture of the serious disputes and divides that characterised the suffragette movement at times, beyond some hand-wringing over the bombings, and the exclusion that occurred with single mothers and women of colour is also ignored, which is not to the films credit. There’s also a simplicity of approach when it comes to some characters, and the way that Maud solves a problem regards the lecherous advances of a laundry boss towards a friends daughter was oddly sudden, convenient and unbelievably easy.

The film ends with a closing crawl detailing the years when female suffrage became law in various countries, and a brief list of those nations, mostly in the Arab world, where it is still not law, essentially reminding the audience that the suffragette cause has still not won the ultimate global victory that is as inevitable today as it was 100 years ago, even if the time taken to get to that point has long since passed the point of acceptable. It is not surprising, or wrong, that Suffragette could be so nakedly political, and a film that showcases such a vital period in the history of feminism has every right to point a spotlight at those places which are still in need of a little reformation.

There I go, dropping the “F” word, a term that appears to inevitably carry a larger and larger weight nowadays, in the time of the Gamergate absurdity, rampant online harassment of women for the crime of being women and unprecedented focus on female specific issues and difficulties: sexual assault, access to abortion, public harassment, unequal working conditions, etc. Suffragette addresses many of these issues within its historical setting, but many of the experience depicted are as relevant now as they were then. This is a film that, barring the odd cutting room decisions of its ending, depicts feminist thinking, ideology and practise in an inspiring and appropriate way, at least in my view, and for that alone should be reaching a larger audience, even if it is predominantly female.

Gavron’s direction is to be admired for the most part. She successfully draws a line between the traditional female roles and the efforts to destroy them visually, and there is something to be said for the way that that harshness of Maud’s existence cane be seen in both positive – her family home with Sonny and her son, run-down but full of sentiment – and negative – the laundry, with an early montage showcasing directly the physical toll it takes on its workers – ways.

As befitting a film that is essentially about a war without (many) casualties, many of the more high-octane sequences have the sniff of war film about them, in the cuts and in the back and forth between opposing camps, the escalation and the repercussions. There’s even a “If you want to back out…” scene. The colour palette, in opposition to usual depictions of the era, remains resolutely grey, muddy and brown, with one brief glimpse of a park almost a shock to the system after so much time in the slums and dank prisons, and the music matches, staying out of the experience for large stretches. Indeed, with all of that, the film that I was most reminded of in comparison was Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, a picture about insurgency in the same period.

Attached to everything is the script of Abi Morgan – of Shame and The Iron Lady fame – which, mixed with the authentic period accents and surroundings, imbues Suffragette with the right kind of feeling for the period being discussed. Here is “low brow” slang and accent mixing with a high and mightier cause, and every defiant statement and every emotionally charged plea for the granting of a basic right gives the films central message additional power: Pankhurst’s “I would rather be a rebel than a slave” might be the kind of sentiment that causes a ruckus today (and the film is as guilty as any other in its whitewashing of history) but still grabs the attention as much as Gavron wants it too. “War is the only thing men listen to” is another, which sums up much of what the film is trying to depict with this section of the suffragette movement.

Ultimately, Suffragette can’t quite reach the heights that it should be able to. Maybe this should have been a Pankhurst biopic, maybe it should have spent more time on women during the First World War, maybe it should have been longer, maybe it shouldn’t have spent as much time as it did on the Watt family drama. You can only judge what has been put in front of you, and while Suffragette has many fine elements, not least Mulligan’s strong central performance, the script and the modern-day necessity of films of this nature, you can’t help but be disappointed by the strange non-ending or some of the supporting cast. Whole Suffragette is one of the year’s most important films, showcasing feminism’s importance at a time when the notion is under threat, it cannot be said to be one of the year’s best films, unfortunately. I would still recommend it, but cannot praise it to the hills. Suffragette is a film to inspire, but not, alas, to take a place in the pantheon of the greats.

A good, but not great, movie.

A good, but not great, movie.

(All images are copyright of Focus Features).

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