Of the endless social issues that have been addressed in cinema, women’s suffrage has been given minimal attention, with the prominent examples being meagre enough to count on one hand. We all know the powerful chorus sung proudly by Glynis Johns in Mary Poppins, and 2015 film Suffragette gathered mainstream attention, but I’d wager there would be few people who could confidently list too many other titles about the subject. It’s an ironic reflection of the issue itself, and perhaps now with Hollywood transitioning through a fundamental equality movement, such stories might become more prominent and recognised.
The new Swiss film The Divine Order tells the story of Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a meek and mild housewife who becomes a beacon of change in her small, traditional village during the early 1970s. While the world around them was changing with movements like black power, flower power, student marches and a sexual revolution, Switzerland was years behind, being one of the last Westernised countries to grant women the right to vote, let alone addressing the myriad of other social issues. Nora’s home village is sheltered from outside influence and life is simple. Men and women have their “traditional” roles to play, and life for the women was to serve their husbands and families without reservation.
The Australasian countries were the first to give women the vote in the late 1800s, with other prominent nations like America, England and Canada joining the ranks in the 1920s. In fact Switzerland was so behind the game that even Afghanistan beat them to it in 1965. And so when Nora happens upon a small information booth giving out pamphlets about an upcoming referendum on women’s right to vote, she reevaluates her life and unwittingly becomes the leader of a monumental uprising. With the help of two other women, she begins to explore her sexuality through literature, and discovers how far behind the rest of the world her country is. Before she knows it, she is causing a divisive uproar in her community and challenging others to take a stand. The result is a massive women’s strike, which forces a long overdue change.
This is a powerful subject that should evoke a passion within the viewer, and yet despite all good intentions The Divine Order misses its mark ever so slightly. It is a lovely-looking film, with a wonderful production design and a quaint rural setting, but despite its strong calibre of performances, the way the story comes across is less than inspiring.
A comparable title would be 2014’s Pride, which examined LGBT issues within a similar environment. What that film did successfully – which The Divine Order doesn’t – was to tackle its issues with an equal measure of whimsy and gravitas. In this instance, the light and dark are infused and the light-heartedness of the story is misaligned with its seriousness. It’s clearly trying to tell an important story, but it ultimately comes across as forced.
That’s not to suggest that it’s a bad film. Where it falters in its political commentaries it compensates with an assortment of very good performances. Leuenberger is particularly wonderful as Nora. She has similar qualities to German actress Franka Potente, and with a little luck has the potential to share the same Hollywood success as Potente. Maximilian Simonischek plays her embarrassed husband, who struggles with his own personal beliefs amidst an overbearing opposing sentiment. Sibylle Brunner, Marta Zoffoli and Rachel Braunschweig make up a united ensemble of strong female characters who help turn Nora’s frustrations into a widespread movement. As stated, it is an impressive line up of players, all of whom make the most out of an otherwise lacklustre script.
Again, the production value – along with an effective retro pop soundtrack – helps to elevate The Divine Order above its misgivings, and accompanied by those steadfast performances it makes the grade… just. It tells a unique chapter in the greater narrative of women’s rights and may it be one of many more to come. See it because the subject is so widely under-represented, but heed the warnings presented in this review. It’s timing with the #metoo movement is perhaps unintentional and fortuitous; either way, it’s a factor that could help the film resonate more than it might have otherwise.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10