Over the past few months, I have watched three wonderful films that have made a deep impression on me. All three involve strong women who start from humble backgrounds and work their way up. The men along the way are sometimes supportive, sometimes not. But these stories are not really about women versus men — they are about women finding within themselves, the strength to shape their destinies. That there are unsupportive men around is simply one more obstacle for them to negotiate.
A man is wrongfully convicted of murder and spends the better part of his adult life in prison before his sister proves his innocence and has him released. The story is not about him, though — it is about how a high school dropout and housewife and mother of two decides to get her high school diploma and then put herself through college and law school so that she could fight her brother’s case herself. If it weren’t a true story, I’d probably have dismissed it as one more instance of Hollywood putting dramatic impact above plausibility.
That the man is played by Sam Rockwell might not come as a surprise, but it is easy to imagine a number of other talented character actors in the role. But can you think of anybody else except Hillary Swank in his sister’s role?
There is a moment when she visits her brother in prison after he has just tried to kill himself. Watch the way she reacts to this and gently extracts from him, a promise never to do that again. I was reminded for a moment of Laura Linney’s performance in Love Actually, where she reacts to her brother losing control and trying to hit her. It is not a note readily suggested by the plot, but it is what lets Swank differentiate this character from the other strong women she has played before.
Made in Dagenham
As late as the second half of the last century, most companies in the industrialized world still paid women less than men for doing the same work. Then a bunch of women who used to stitch the upholstery on Ford cars at one of their plants in the UK decided to go on strike in protest. It snowballed into a nationwide movement, embarrassed the Labour Government which was in power at that time and led to the creation of new legislation mandating equal pay for women and men. Other nations followed suit.
The movement is spearheaded by a woman named Rita O’Grady (a composite character based on a number of real ones), played by Sally Hawkins. This is the first movie I have seen her in and, if this performance is any indication, I will eagerly look forward to watching anything else starring her, even if it turns out to be a commercial for some brand of fabric softener.
The crucial exchange, for me, is one she has with her husband late in the movie when he claims to have been a good husband because he doesn’t get drunk or abusive. Her response to that is: That is as it should be.
Another gem of an exchange comes when reporters ask her how they would cope if the Government refused to support their demands, she responds with: Cope? We’re women. Don’t ask stupid questions.
Queen to Play
This one’s quite different from the other two, in that it is a little story about a Corsican maid who learns to play chess under the mentorship of one of her employers and finds, within the logical labyrinth of this fascinating game, the keys to her own life. The relationship between the maid and her mentor seems poised on the edge of sexuality sometimes — there is a scene involving them playing a sort of blindfold chess that puts the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway scene from The Thomas Crown Affair to shame. But what really drives it is the respect they have for each other’s minds and talent. A bit like Girl with a Pearl Earring and Once.
The leads are perfectly cast. Kevin Kline shows himself capable of investing a line like “Knight to d4″ with more emotion than I would’ve thought possible. Sandrine Bonnaire looks like a woman you might cross on the street without noticing, but when she smiles, well… But for much of the film’s running time, you just see her thinking. I didn’t think it would be so absorbing to watch someone do that, but she makes it so. It takes a special talent to be able to do without dialogue like “Knight to d4″.