The accurate portrayal of gender politics is a difficult one to get right — a fact that the filmmakers behind Suffragette were no doubt aware of when getting into their subject matter, but one that also slightly eluded them in the end. Early on in the film, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George asks Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts what the vote would mean to her, to which she replies -in so many words – “I never thought that we could get it, so I never thought about what it would mean to me.” While this statement poignantly rings true to the beginnings of many civil rights movements, it also speaks to where the film loses its steam. What Suffragette gains in intention and solid performances, it loses in overall meaning and punch as the story quickly digresses from the harrowing tale of the everywoman to a lackluster chronicle of events mixed with a handful of moving speeches.
Suffragette is a film boasting of an all-female creative team with director Sarah Gavron (as her first major feature) and screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady). Gavron’s style is characterized by stark visuals and hurried camera cuts that mirror the desperation of the political and social moment where we find our setting.
The film is based on the true beginnings of the British feminist suffrage movement at the turn of the 20th century. It follows Maud (Mulligan), a fictionalized working class woman who stumbles into the suffragette movement almost by accident, but ends up becoming one of its leaders within her small community. Through her involvement, she faces public ridicule, imprisonment, and the stripping away of her human rights. The film also features Emmaline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the historic figurehead of the movement, along with fellow foot soldiers played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella), Anne-Marie Duff (UK’s Shameless), and Romola Garai (Atonement) as women who practiced civil disobedience to further their cause — some tactics include placing homemade bombs in mailboxes, throwing rocks through the windows of public buildings, and public protest.
It is important that the protagonist of Suffragette is an everywoman. Maud Watts is a wife, a mother, and a hard-working employee at the local laundry house. Following the perspective of a woman actually occupying the same spaces and experiences of those most ardently feeling the effects of this oppression is a powerful base for the story. Although Maud’s character is carefully crafted and near perfectly executed by Mulligan, her view tends to be myopic at certain points. Streep’s Pankhurst only occupies the screen for a total of one scene (a faux-moving scene at that), but remains a presence in the film from thereon out through whispers and newspaper headlines. Although it is understandable as to why the film focused on a small group of working class women rather than the movement’s actual leaders, it also missed the mark in showing its greater stakes and further reaching consequences.
For the women that the film did depict, however, their characters were written and portrayed with levity and grace. Morgan, who has a history of writing quality female roles (such as for The Iron Lady and The Invisible Woman), was able to achieve something quite similar here. Mulligan unsurprisingly delivers a solid performance, gently capturing the balance of strength and fear required of a courageous character that has everything to lose (although her turn as Bathsheba Everdeen in Far From the Madding Crowd earlier this year greatly surpasses this role). Bonham Carter is particularly impressive as she fills a role unlike much of her past over-the-top characters and appropriately underplays her acting as Edith Ellyn, a woman stubbornly dedicated to the cause and the violent rebellion Pankhurst calls for.
Where the film starts to fall off the horse from the get go is with its male characters. Every man portrayed in the film falls into one of two categories: coward or villain, strapped with all their stereotypical accoutrements (there is one exception in Edith’s husband, however his role is denigrated to a few choice lines). One of the worst offenders is Maud’s laundry house employer Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell, Kingsman: The Secret Service), who makes himself busy harassing his female employees either sexually or verbally. While the point of his character comes across loud and clear, his pure villainy is unnecessary. The most infuriating scenes don’t come from Mr. Taylor however, but from Maud’s cowardly husband (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) and his eventual efforts to separate her from their son. Even with Brendan Gleeson’s (In Bruges) far more reasonable Inspector Steed, a man staunchly dedicated to upholding the law despite his own personal beliefs, we get another cowardly male figure playing a significant role. While these single-noted men likely existed during this movement, the film again lost an opportunity to reach for meaning by portraying multiple sides of history.
Suffragette’s greatest moments occur in the few sporadically placed speeches and monologues given by Maud, Pankhurst, and others. Morgan has a clear understanding of the suffragette movement’s sentiments, which she captures expertly in these scenes. One line that stands out is in a discussion between Maud and Steed when she justifies the tactics of civil disobedience, telling him that “war is the only language men listen to.” Morgan scatters several such mic-dropping lines of dialogue throughout the film, but most of these can be seen in the film’s trailer, and consequently, the rest of the story falls short of its varied lofty and heroic moments.
Verdict 3 out of 5
While Suffragette is a film with great intention and triumphantly one of the first films tackling this subject matter, it doesn’t quite fulfill the heroic struggle of the movement. Compelling performances by actresses at the top of their game are unfortunately overshadowed by a lack in scope. The movie’s climax also comes as a result of a tertiary character’s actions rather than the main players, further pulling focus from an opportunity for powerful effect. In the end, Suffragette struggles to find a balance between the intimate story of the everywoman and its wider social and historical impacts.