A Little Bit of Buzz about the Movie, Suffragette

There are a fair amount women in the United States who are excited over the release of this movie this fall.  I’ve read comments about mothers wanting to take their daughters to watch the film.  I get it.  We see Meryl.  We see female empowerment.  We hear English accents.  We hear Meryl with an English accent.   We think, “Hell, yeah!  This is a movie for us!”

But the U.K. suffragette movement is not really taught over here in our history classes for understandable reasons, so a lot of us won’t really understand the context under which the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) radicalized.  And seeing the words “Inspired by Real Events” makes me leery over how the history will be portrayed.  After all, it is a movie, a piece of art designed to project the director’s point of view.

What we do know is the story of Emily Wilding Davison who was jailed nine times, force-fed 49 times, and ran out into the path of King George V’s horse, Anmer at Ascot.  Analysis from the reel concluded that she was just trying to attach a scarf to the bridle, but fate had other sad plans for her.  She embodied the passion and devotion behind the cause.

But most American women do not know nor understand just how many times the female chartists banged their heads against the Parliamentary wall to get the vote through conventional means.  In the United States, the Territory of Wyoming had female suffrage in 1869, with Utah Territory in 1870, and Washington Territory in 1883.  When Wyoming became a state in 1889, women’s suffrage was written right into its state constitution, so we had the legal precedence right there to make it national.  We had to slog through 31 more years with smaller victories along the way until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.  The U.K. female chartists just had one channel to go through, and to keep having the door shut for decades, I can only imagine, took its toll.  It was a different battle entirely.

But the WSPU did more than just set off a few bombs in post boxes and break a few windows.  A great example I can give was in 1912, four female militant supporters of the voting cause attempted to set fire to the Theatre Royale in Dublin where Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was attending a packed matinee.  Earlier that same day, one of the would-be arsonists, Mary Leigh, threw a hatchet at Asquith and cut the ear of Irish Nationalist leader, John Redmond.  That is an assassination attempt.  (On an interesting note, Asquith is the great-grandfather of Helena Bonham-Carter who plays a suffragette named Edith New in the movie.)  Fortunately, their efforts didn’t pay off.  We can say their campaign did reach Real IRA levels without the death tolls, if you want to read a little bit more about it.  It wasn’t until the WSPU ceased with the campaign and disbanded in 1917 that Parliament was willing to deal with the moderates like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  Suffrage was given to women age 30 and over who owned a minimum amount of property in 1918, but universal female suffrage was given to women 21 and over regardless of property ownership in 1928.

Meanwhile, historians are conflicted over how positive the WSPU’s impact really was on the U.K. women’s voting movement really was.  Were they freedom fighters, or were they terrorists? No doubt, the WSPU were wonderful at keeping publicity for the cause in the papers and the public eye and, as a by-product, forced the moderates to better organize themselves.  But did their radicalism help or hurt their cause in the long run?  Are we being more lenient on them because they were women and had no proper political voice whatsoever?

I don’t have the answers, but I can say the following:  Suffragette could turn out to be a war movie for women, which would be a switch.  Or it could sanitize the whole thing.  I could walk out of the theater annoyed as hell.

But most of us were not born into aristocracy, and our ancestors, male and female, had to fight for our rights to vote in some way.  So if the movie reminds us to be grateful for what we have, even if the story is ugly.

Suffragette is set to be released on October 23, 2015 in the United States and October 30, 2015 in the United Kingdom.

Do Accurate Accents Matter in Entertainment?

“Mary Poppins3” by Trailer screenshot – Mary Poppins Trailer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

My American in-laws and I had the pleasure of seeing the Chicago production of Kinky Boots yesterday.  Those in the U.K. would know the title as the 2005 movie based upon the true story of a man who inherited his father’s shoe factory in Northamptonshire and turned to making footwear for drag queens and transvestites to save the company from going under.  Well, what I saw was the Tony-award winning musical crafted in the hands of Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue.

I started to panic when one of the actors came on the stage, in character, and performed a monologue on his cell phone about how he had to go to work in the shoe factory and the audience needed to shut their phones down.  It would have been really clever, if there weren’t slips in the accent punctuated with a distinctive honk in his voice when he said “wanker”.  It only got worse from there.  What I heard afterwards was a cacophony of various approximations of English accents.  Some of the actors did their homework.  Others weren’t up to the challenge.

And I am sure some of you are asking why I am being so picky.  Well, let me explain.  The characters were supposed to be born and raised in Northamptonshire, and they occasionally travelled to London as a counterpoint.  So, this was not a musical that could be just set anywhere.  It wasn’t something like Shakespearean play that could be molded into different settings.  There was a lot emphasis about how they were in a “small town” of Northampton with a dying shoe industry.  (It’s only a city of 212,000 people.  Lauper and Fierstein did not get a good enough grip on England to get their facts straight and build up the tension of what was going on.  It made me wish Eddie Izzard was part of the project.)  If these characters are flittering around with their voices, how am I supposed to believe the story they are telling, when I have lived amongst the real people?

My fellow Americans, imagine sitting in a theater in London, and you are seeing a musical set in Atlanta cast with British actors.  Let’s say this a musical where the setting and context is crucial, say the Civil Rights era.  Imagine what you hear is some of the actors sounding like Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard after downing a fifth of Jack.  Others have the Midwestern neutral accent that you hear on the national newscasts, but quite a few of them regress back into their regular regional voices every third word.  Meanwhile, there are the few gems who nail it, and you just want to run onto the stage and kiss them.  That was my experience yesterday.

Maybe the best thing we can call this is Dick Van Dyke Syndrome.  In the U.K., the benchmark of an American doing a shite English accent is Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.  Everyone else is measured against him.  Even the Boffin asked me, “Were they as bad as Dick Van Dyke?” when I gave my review.  For the record, some of them were better.  Some of them were worse.

I am only discussing theater, but we can certainly extrapolate this point into movies and TV.  And we have heard our fair share of British actors who have mangled American accents.  Exhibit A:  Sean Connery in The Untouchables.  You mean to tell me he was supposed to be Chicago Irish when Chicago permeated every pore of that movie?  Exhibit B: Ewan MacGregor in Big Fish.  His deep Alabama drawl is absolutely pathetic in comparison to Albert Finney’s older version of the same character.  It somewhat undercuts the credibility of the story.  Of course, the bad accents did not completely ruin the movies, but having the main actors nail the accents would have improved them.

I know I am being negative about the whole accent business, but I promise you I wasn’t sitting through the whole show stewing about the voices.  Trust me, the choreography by Jerry Mitchell and the musical numbers were fantastic everything you want from Broadway.  In fact, I told my in-laws I wanted Kinky Boots to be a rock-n-roll opera to avoid the accent issue entirely.  I am just thinking that those extra details would have made the experience better for me, especially since my in-laws treated me to a very expensive theater ticket.  I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting their money’s worth.

But I am in the minority.  I ended up doing a little research about accents in theater and came up with two interesting articles in the New York Times and the Guardian.   If you only have time to read one, read the Guardian one.  In summary of what the article said, actors and directors are in a no-win situation regarding accents.  What the actors were doing on stage were basically what the American audience expected.  Basically, it expects Dick Van Dyke.  (I have my work cut out for me to debunk a lot of British misconceptions.)  Sometimes the directors tell the actors not to go for accuracy to avoid criticism for not doing the voices correctly enough.  It’s better to miss the archery target completely than to aim for the bullseye and only hit the red.  Meanwhile, those of us more familiar with the nuances have to suffer.

Do accents matter to you when you are watching entertainment?  Why or why not?

This British-American Life at the Movies: Sixty Six (2006)

There is one little tidbit I haven’t shared about us yet. We’re Jewish. Well, the Boffin is Jewish, and I’m along for the ride. We’re of the Reform variety, so that means that the Sprog is considered Jewish without the maternal bloodline. We belong to our temple. The Sprog goes to Sunday school and Hebrew school. She sings in Kavannah (the youth choir) and is planning her Bat Mitzvah even though she is only 10. And we platz like nobody’s business. Oy vey.

Why am I mentioning this? Well, it’s quite pertinent to the the movie review. Sixty Six is a comedy-drama that centers around the year 1966 and a soon-to-be 13-year-old boy, Bernie Rubens, as he approaches his Jewish coming of age. Bernie, being a lad who gets ignored a lot and is “not very good at breathing,” thinks his Bar Mitzvah is the moment that he will finally shine and take his place in the world. But fate plays against him because family hardships with the grocery business means the celebration has to be scaled back. Even worse, England is doing uncharacteristically well in the World Cup, and the final is scheduled on his big day! To put this in perspective for the Americans, 1966 World Cup final when England beat West Germany is one of the jewels in English sporting history. It was the last time they won the World Cup and is still discussed ad nauseum to this day. No one would have gone the Bat Mitzvah, if England made to the final, so Bernie spends a lot of time wishing for England’s demise.

The movie is a Working Title production. They are the same people that brought you Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually. Don’t let that detract you, if you are not a rom-com fan. The plot is based upon director, Paul Weiland’s own Bar Mitzvah being shadowed by the World Cup, so there is credibility to it. Although Sixty Six starts off slightly slowly, it picks up pace and proves to be engaging, quirky, funny, and well-acted. The stand-out performances go to Gregg Sulkin as Bernie who is really captures the angst of understanding that life is not about getting everything that you want, but at the same time wondering when it is going to be his turn. Eddie Marsan’s portrayal of Bernie’s meek, hypochondriac father was skillful in keeping him a character and creating not a caricature. You will also see solid performances from Helena Bonham-Carter, Catherine Tate, and Peter Serafinowicz.

The most interesting thing about the film is the grander theme. Look out for the tug-of-war between national identity vs. religious/personal identity. Bernie and his immediate family are trying to hold steady to their lives and plans while the nation around them is pushing forward with its own agenda in the form of the World Cup and the modern supermarket. There is much pressure to conform, even within the Jewish community. I don’t want to spoil the movie, but it’s interesting how it all plays out. I would imagine that an American movie would yield a different outcome.

So take the time to watch Sixty Six, if only to get a glimpse of a different part of England.