Film & Television

Will 2015 Be Remembered as the Year Women Conquered the Movies?

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

 

Suffragette-Movie-Posters

Next year we may elect a woman to be president, but 2015 may well be remembered as the year women reigned in American films. The fall season, when most of the “award-worthy” films are usually released, is already shaping up as one of the most notable in years for the number and quality of substantial female roles. In the past few weeks  three of the year’s most worthwhile movies, “Room” (Brie Larsen), “Brooklyn” (Saoirse Ronan),  and “Suffragette” (Carey Mulligan) have hit theaters, all promising to be contenders for prizes. These are added to those already released such as “Mistress America”(starring Greta Gerwig) and “Queen of Everything”(with Elisabeth Moss), films whose very titles declare that women are front and center.

Even genre films usually cast with men have been filled with female roles lately. For example, “Sicario,” an acclaimed drama about bringing down a drug cartel has Emily Blunt  in the lead as a young federal agent. “Our Brand is Crisis” stars Sandra Bullock in a part originally written for a man. “Ex Machina” and “Lucy” are both futuristic sci-fi thrillers with female menaces.

Comedies also had notable performances by women this year. Among the best received and highest grossing were “Spy,” another entry from the relentless Melissa McCarthy, and “Trainwreck,” which Amy Schumer wrote and starred in . And a new sub-genre seemed brewing with three memorable comedies about women over 70: “Grandma” (Lily Tomlin), “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (Blythe Danner), and “Five Flights Up” (Diane Keaton).  Other noted entries starring women included “Truth” (Cate Blanchett), “The Clouds of Sils Maria” (Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart), and “Freehold” (Julianne Moore and Ellen Page). Among the movies yet to be released but causing a lot of “buzz” are “Secret in Their Eyes” (Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman), “Carol” (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), and “Joy” (Jennifer Lawrence). All three films center on their female leads.

“Room,” “Brooklyn,” and “Suffragette” are particularly worthwhile not only because of their quality but also because their themes are central to womanhood itself. “Suffragette” (reviewed here) is the most explicit and obvious, insofar as it deals directly with the campaign for women to gain voting rights. Set in England in the early part of the 20th century, this film wisely focuses not on the key historical figures but on the struggles of a common laundress, played by Carey Mulligan. In dramatizing her character’s personal story, which includes a history of child labor, her mother’s death at an early age from the burdens of working a lifetime in the laundry, sexual abuse at the hands of her boss, and no rights at all when it comes to her husband or her children,“Suffragette” makes the stakes involved in the fight for the vote personal and urgent. Every aspect of this woman’s life is oppressive, and made much more so because she is “just” a woman. Mulligan, whose performance earlier in the year in the outstanding remake of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” is a forceful but restrained actress who has demonstrated repeatedly her ability to perform roles of wide range and variety and to carry an entire film centered on her performance.

Brie Larsen is called upon to carry a film more than any actress in recent memory since through half of “Room” (reviewed here) she has only one a set, the tiny cell that she is imprisoned in, and a small boy to help her. Critics have hailed her performance as astonishing and it derives much of its power from her acute portrayal of a woman who gets whatever strength she has and all of her identity from her role as a mother. In this sense, Emma Donohue’s story, a screenplay based on her book of the same title, can be seen as a tale of someone whose circumstances create a perverse distillation of a question central to all women: who are we if not mothers, the film asks, but do we damage our children if they are too central to us?

Although Eilis, the young woman in “Brooklyn,” does not question the roles available to women in the 1950s, when it is set, the film explores what paths are available to her and how she makes her choices. In doing so, through the story of this one beautifully drawn character, this movie is a profound exploration of the loyalties, responsibilities and conflicts that women have traditionally had to bear. Based on a wonderful novel by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” is a radiant film that centers on Eilis’s struggle to adjust to life as a very young woman having immigrated to America from Ireland, leaving her family behind. Saoirse Ronan is astonishing as the main character, an actress whose luminescent eyes and skin communicate the freshness and vulnerability of her youth and inexperience. The audience can almost see a physical change in her as the realities (both good and bad) of adulthood bring her to confront the necessity of choice and commitment. It is part of the remarkable power of this film that it makes the depth and power of that path look so glorious.

One thing that these films share, besides quality, of course, is that they depict the lives of women as complicated, embattled, and full of conflict. They also show us heroines who rise to the task of mastering the obstacles that are in their way simply because they are women. In a year that has put the spotlight on the sexual abuse of women on campuses and in the workplace, it is clear that there is still much progress that needs to be made before the vulnerabilities of being a woman won’t be much of a subject matter for an important movie. But many thanks are owed to these filmmakers and actresses for doing such a good job of it now, in 2015, when it is still crucial.

 

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