Have I mentioned before that I admire HBO? Have I mentioned that I deeply admire HBO, because I really admire HBO. Although, seeing how they are the company that has released my all-time favorite film, Temple Grandin, it shouldn’t be unexpected for me to be biased towards them. However, as I pondered on HBO’s library of television films, I realized something: the success of HBO’s television films makes no sense.
Not because they’re bad; far from it. It’s because they shatter every conformist aspect of, not merely other television films, but films in general. They are so anti-conventional. They march to the beat of their own drum. They are the indie rock of cinema. Their cinematic skills are on a level that I wish most films released in theaters were on. For a station whose major success was found in The Sopranos, which I have finally seen and I can conclude that it is good, these self-effacing, unorthodox films shouldn’t be as hugely popular and widely successful as they are. There truly must be a God up there.
I believe that the reasons that they shouldn’t be popular are the exact reasons why they are popular. HBO does have a huge reputation, even though the general consensus could probably only name, like, seven of their shows. It is the hometown for the blockbusters and it used to shelter stand-up comedy specials before Comedy Central robbed them of that. Stars like Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Claire Daines, Macy Gray, and Al Pacino have lined up to get a taste of the HBO hummus (I’m weird). So, with all this in mind, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that HBO’s television films are hugely successful and suck up Emmys like a…uh…Emmy vacuum (I’ll stop with the weird descriptions). It also shouldn’t surprise me that a station that has a catalog of broad and fascinating topics would choose to make a film revolving around women’s suffrage. Folks, meet the Iron-Jawed Angels.
The film, as previously stated, revolves around women’s suffrage, particularly around passionate and outspoken suffragist, Alice Paul, played by Hilary Swank. It chronicles the efforts made by female suffragists to retain voting rights they believed they were entitled to. Folks, don’t worry. This isn’t some moronic Lifetime film. Read on. The film brings to life the extreme hardships of the suffragists, including the torture that some endured at prisons.
I believe my verdict is clear: HBO has a prowess for crafting visual poems. The cinematography is extremely versatile, covering all areas. It can be fleet and quick and it can also be slow, although the slow-mo sequences can be awkward, at times. It is just orgasmic (just another way of saying liberating. I like the sound of it.) to see camerawork that is so quick-witted and alive.
The camera, also, used to great effect in the end credits. Spoiler alert: Women get voting rights! SURPRISE! The credits consist of Alice Paul and her friend and fellow suffragist, Lucy Burns, played by Frances O’Connor. The camera spirals around them, as the two ladies perennially smile and the brightness of the setting illuminates them. Those end credits are as strong a symbol of triumph as I’ve seen in a while.
The intro evokes the craftsmanship and creativity of poems. The intro merely displays an array of images, all of which are virtually unconnected with each other. This forces the viewer’s mind to conjure up many thoughts, just like a poem should. I, also, admire the film’s controlled and almost insidious use of music. At one point, the music is as modest and sparse as HBO and the next moment, it blares some unknown modern song. While the clashing of cultures can be questioned, I trust and respect HBO’s judgment, whatever it may be.
Writers Sally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, and Jennifer Friedes have all crafted a marvelous screenplay that clashes tonally like the music clashes, culturally. Surprisingly, for a film of this potent subject matter, there’s a lot of mordant humor, some of which is directed towards Helen Keller. And here I thought Family Guy was the only product on television that poked fun at her. The script, at the same times, expertly executes its mood, sometimes in unique ways. Consider a scene where Alice, after going on a hunger strike in prison, is dragged into a room, where she is force-fed. In a typical film, you would most likely hear some muffled audio and maybe some uninterrupting orchestral music would play. In this film, the other female prisoners, mostly comprised of the other female suffragists who were jailed, sing a hymn, a capella, while the torture ensues. It may not be the most grandiose emotional moment, but it is more elegiac and haunting than most films that use the aforementioned tactic to elicit emotions. The script also incorporates the key element of HBO’s success: restraint. Consider the climactic scene where women’s suffrage laws have finally been passed. There isn’t any raucous cheering and accumulating orchestra music. The screenwriters know that the subject is intrinsically triumphant and the end credits will take care of everything.
As expected from HBO, the acting is first-rate. Hilary Swank has a tricky character. Tonally, she has a variety of areas to cover. For a character whose moment of starving herself nearly to death is preceded by scenes of her crying in agony over the loss of a former suffragists and questioning her own cause and of her fingering herself in the bathtub (tastefully done, I might add), this character portrayal is daringly written and depicting her wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Hilary Swank does it impeccably, assured and confident as ever. Bob Gunton is very believable as President Woodrow Wilson. Thank God Gunton’s allowed to play a character, as opposed to some one-dimensional, outlandish stereotype in Patch Adams. Veteran actress Anjelica Huston is stern and strong in her role and Julia Ormond is very good, despite her restricted screen time (she’s the suffragist I told you about who dies).
One actress who surprised me was this woman Molly Parker, who played Emily Leighton, the wife of a senator. He is against women’s suffrage and she is not. This actress, apparently, played a major role in Deadwood and has received various bit parts in various films. She was superb in her role as a woman who begins as reluctant and ends as courageous. One of my favorite moments with her was a scene when she’s in prison. The women’s suffragists’ petitioning has been seen as a crime and thus, the women spend time in jail, as previously stated. Her husband visits her and they have a conversation, which is one of the best moments in the film. The things they discuss evoke an ambiance that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. She knows that, one fine day, women will overcome, but will she?
However, not everything about the film is excellent. While we do have a plethora of incredibly talented actors and actresses, we still have to put up with that useless waste of space that is Patrick Dempsey. This film made me realize something: I hate him!
I didn’t realize that before, but this film makes a case for my newfound hatred of him. In everything I’ve seen him do, he has that annoyingly chirpy, putso smile that makes him look like Sean Penn with Down’s syndrome. When he’s not aggravating me with his smile, he aggravates me with how lost or tired he looks. In addition, his character is a tool. With the exception of one scene where he reveals to Alice that his wife dies, which is actually one of the few moments his torpid acting is actually justified, there’s no weight to his character.
The, I guess, romance between him and Alice is clichéd and banal. There is one scene where it is a montage of them together being romantic and silly, and interspersed with that is the aforementioned moment of Alice fingering herself. Sure, it’s hot, but the way the scene’s structured is incoherent and fragmented. The whole fingering business feels like a deleted scene that they half-assedly tied in to the film. It’s like if someone watched Schindler’s List and someone randomly scattered pieces of a porno into the film. In addition, as much as I love the camerawork, there was one moment where Julia Ormond was talking over some moving sky background that felt more at home in a 1980s music video.
Regardless of that, Iron-Jawed Angels is the kind of the film that affirms HBO’s reputation as a sly powerhouse. This is definitely one of the quintessential women’s suffrage films to view. It’s informative, eye opening, and well acted, written, and filmed. Plus, while it is still a weirdly placed moment, you still see Hilary Swank finger herself. Can’t go wrong with that. ;-)
RATING: Three and a half stars out of four