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Iron Jawed Angels

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Iron Jawed Angels
cast: Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, Julia Ormond, Angelica Huston, and Molly Parker

director: Katja von Garnier

123 minutes (tbc) 2004
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Warner DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Donald Morefield
This TV movie showcases the inspiring true story of American feminist Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and social reformer Lucy Burns (Frances O'Connor), who risked their lives before WWI to campaign for a 19th amendment to the US constitution, granting women full citizenship and the right to vote. Alice was the founder of a radical women's party not aligned or allied with the long established suffragettes' movement led by Carrie Chapman Catt (the formidable Anjelica Huston). Among the Quaker-born, political activist Alice's recruits to her irrefutably worthy cause are glamorous lawyer Inez Mulholland (the ever stunning Julia Ormond), and senator's wife Emily Leighton (Molly Parker). Most famous among Alice & Co.'s campaign actions was a street parade - led by Inez dressed as a warrior-angel on horseback, on the very same day as President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.

ALICE:  "I'm having dinner with Helen Keller."
BEN:  "Don't stare, she hates that."

While picketing the White House after the onset of war in Europe, Alice and her NWP protestors contend with verbal abuse and physical attacks from outraged hecklers (including US servicemen), and they end up thrown in prison after the circus of a court appearance - charged with a trumped up public nuisance offence of 'obstructing traffic', simply because they have embarrassed the condescending Wilson's administration. The gross humiliations of unrepentant inmate Alice's mistreatment in the workhouse are presented in uncomfortable detail during this film's latter half. Alice's unjustified punishments include solitary confinement in a straightjacket, and tortuous forced-feeding in a barbaric 'psychiatric ward' after she leads the other agitator/prisoners on a hunger strike. It's a perfect example of the truism that extreme courage may sometimes be mistaken for insanity.

Throughout all this, Swank (who seems to be making a Hollywood career out of playing gutsy roles) proves she's got what it takes to play this indomitable spirit. The film's star part is a psychologically, emotionally and physically demanding one. Ms Swank certainly gives it all she's got... and what she's got is considerable. It's a lot. Her amazing portrayal demonstrates the determination of Alice's resolute character in supremely trendy yet engaging biopic style, elevating a standard 'role model' for independent-minded women to the status of an authentic American heroine of the 20th century (the real Alice Paul died in 1977 after a lifetime of civil rights' campaigning - for women everywhere, and even for world peace).

The uniformly excellent cast includes Patrick Dempsey, though he's relegated to 'mere' romantic interest as Washington newspaper cartoonist Ben Weissman; a cameo for Carrie Snodgrass as Alice Paul's mother; plus a wryly mannered - yet nonetheless difficult role for Bob Gunton, who is watchable as President Wilson. Startling in its unswerving commitment to explaining the (largely uncelebrated) cause of these admirable women, while not soft-peddling the daunting obstacles they finally overcame, Iron Jawed Angels is great entertainment. As this HBO production takes a postmodernist approach to storytelling, for what is essentially a long-overdue history lesson, the result is eminently laudable in nearly every respect.

If the film has a problem it's that German filmmaker Katja von Garnier directs in a somewhat uneven fashion, mixing soapy melodrama and art house pretensions with pop video montage into wholly incongruous or inappropriate mise-en-scene which could, unhelpfully, distract viewers' attention from the unfolding narrative. Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 before being aired on the HBO channel, Iron Jawed Angels won a brief DVD release on both sides of the Atlantic but now appears to have been hurriedly 'deleted' in regions one and two, already... Was it something they said?

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