Almost four years ago I encountered Katniss Everdeen for the first time. My daughter (then 14) talked me into taking her to the midnight opening of “The Hunger Games.” She had read all the books. After seeing the film, I wrote, “As I got to know Katniss in the film, I was elated that my teen daughter was into a series with a strong teen female lead, a character brave enough both to fight and to cry, to assert herself and to sacrifice.”
The latter part of 2015 featured not just the conclusion of Katniss’ “Hunger Games” saga, but additional notable female role models. These realistically rounded characters are young women who rise above events and people that threaten to control them. They maintain their personhood in often dehumanizing circumstances. They are valued and valuable for who they are, not whose wife or girlfriend or daughter they happen to be. These women are portrayed by fine young actresses who will be a feminizing force in film for years to come.
One such actress is Saoirse Ronan, who shined in a small put important role in 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel. She plays Eilis Lacey, the main character Brooklyn, my favorite film of 2015. Although on the surface Brooklyn is the oft-told tale of an immigrant who moves to America and finds herself, as well as love, there is much beneath that surface in both the film and Ronan’s performance.
Early in the film during a scene at a dance, the shot tightens until only her face is in the frame. The camera lingers there for quite a while and nothing much seems to be happening, but in Ronan’s expression are the contradictory emotions of eagerness and caution, along with anticipation and uncertainty.
Those close-ups continue throughout the film, as we experience Eilis’ transformation from someone buffeted by events to a woman in control of her situation. She allows neither her suffocating hometown nor her blissful romance to determine her path or her person. It is Eilis’ metamorphosis that is the heart of Brooklyn, and Ronan plays it beautifully.
A different kind of transformation occurs in the life of Maud Watts in Suffragette. Watts is portrayed by Carey Mulligan, also excellent in the summer 2015 film Far From the Madding Crowd. In the hands of a lesser actress, her change from meek washerwoman to suffragette heroine would be unbelievable. But Mulligan makes it real by keeping it real; she is never histrionic even in the midst of tremendous suffering. And suffer she does! She is roughed up by the police and brutally force fed during a prison hunger strike.
But her greatest suffering is emotional. Mulligan bravely depicts Maud torn apart by the rending of her family, especially when her son is taken from her because she is considered an unfit mother. This is a choice rarely (if ever) made by male heroes – to be faithful for the cause they feel called to serve or to have their children ripped from them. In Mulligan’s time being an instrument of change was incompatible with being a mother. (Maybe that’s not so different than our own time when women are still shamed for pursuing careers rather than full-time motherhood.)
Suffragette is not a great film – the action sequences in particular suffer from inexpert direction – but it is an important one. Unfortunately it was poorly marketed as a Meryl Streep picture; she is only on the screen for a few minutes. But it is worth seeing for Mulligan’s performance and for the importance of the subject matter. Our kids, especially our daughters, need to know who the suffragettes were.
Transformation is a theme in these films, and that is certainly true of The Danish Girl. Although defending-champion of the Best Actor Oscar, Eddie Redmayne, is outstanding as the transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, the heart of the film is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Gerda Wegener.
Gerda is no simple “stand by your man (or woman)” wife; Vikander portrays her as a complex woman who does support Einar’s need to become Lili, but is confused and conflicted by both her husband’s gender identification and her own reaction to it. She is loyal, yet independent, an artist in her own right.
Although neither Einar/Lili or Gerda are ultimately “faithful” in a traditional sense, this is the story of the love they have for each other. While Redmayne’s character is rightfully focused on the gender transition, it is Vikander whose vigorous spark empowers the film. Early in 2015, Vikander received some acclaim for her performance as a sympathetic android in Ex Machina. Her work in The Danish Girl is Oscar- worthy.
In addition to these three “small” films, the end of 2015 featured empowered women in central roles in blockbuster films as well. (Perhaps the tone was set earlier in the year with Imperator Furiosa and the other women in Mad Max: Fury Road, a film of feminist empowerment if there ever was one.)
One of the surprises of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the centrality of Rey’s character. Pre-release promotion implied that the new film would be primarily Finn’s story, another epic film where men do heavy work and women are at the periphery. But Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a revelation. She is totally self-sufficient at the beginning of the film, living alone on a desolate planet, making a meager living scavenging wrecked and worn out spacecraft. But her genealogy and her destiny is for much more than that.
I want to avoid detailed spoilers here, but unlike traditional female characters Rey never needs to be rescued – when she is in trouble, by the time her (male) rescuers arrive, she is already out of the clutches of danger. However, that is not to say that she is totally self-sufficient. Her transformation from scavenging loner to rebel hero happens when she becomes part of a rebellion bigger than herself, and when she realizes she is part of an even greater whole (the Force). Rey’s story of self-discovery is only beginning. It will be fun to see how her character develops, and Ridley’s portrayal evolves, over the next few films.
Katniss Everdeen’s film-story, on the other hand, has ended. In one of the final scenes of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part2, she lets go her arrow and demonstrates once and for all that she is her own person (that’s intentionally vague to avoid a spoiler). The Hunger Games saga is the story of the rebellion against the Capital and President Snow, but its power has been in its focus on the character of Katniss. At the time of the first film, Jennifer Lawrence was relatively unknown, but Oscar nominated for a film few people saw, Winter’s Bone. Now she is an Academy Award winning actress who has inhabited a variety of roles in both popular and smaller films. She was the perfect choice for Katniss, and she will surely go on to play other archetypical characters and win more awards.
But at the end of 2015 a cadre of young actresses has emerged who will give Jennifer Lawrence a run for her money and for her Oscars. Let’s just hope that Hollywood continues to provide roles worthy of their talents. That will be a good thing for those of us who love film, and especially for our daughters.