Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw, Adam Michael Dodd, Geoff Bell, Grace Stottor, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep
MPAA Rating: (for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity)
Running Time: 1:45
Release Date: 10/23/15 (limited); 10/30/15 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 29, 2015
Surely there's a more compelling story about the women's suffrage movement of the early 20th century in the United Kingdom than the one told in Suffragette. In fact, the movie itself gives us one, although that story is told through headlines and gossip and one speech. It's a movie in which the characters are more likely to talk about interesting people and happenings than they are to be interesting or do anything of much interest themselves.
The movie, like its protagonist, isn't sure of itself, which is more than a little odd considering the fact that its primary issue isn't a controversial one. Yes, the movie does give us a coda at the end that details a timeline of when and where women were extended the right to vote, and some of those dates are downright depressing (for example, 2015—yes, this year—in Saudi Arabia). This isn't a movie about those places and the movements within them, though. One could argue that the story here is indirectly tied to those others in a general, esoteric way (looking to the injustices of the past to illuminate those in the present). That's a stretch, though.
There's no evidence within the movie, aside from the coda, to inform us that this is anything other than a well-intentioned attempt to tell a specific story about the conditions in a specific place and time. It's sorely misguided in that regard, too.
A major part of the problem—perhaps the key to the movie's many troubles—is the protagonist. She's Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional personage meant, apparently, to represent the average woman of London in 1912. She has no stake in the suffrage movement at the start of the story, and in a befuddling move on the part of the screenplay by Abi Morgan, Maud spends the majority of the movie as an inactive witness to the history surrounding her. She doesn't so much join the cause for women's suffrage as much as she accidentally falls into it, thanks to an assortment of coincidences and a series of artificial circumstances.
Maud is no true believer in the cause. By the end of the movie, it's difficult even to determine if she has come to believe in that cause in any substantive way. Morgan keeps the character from the ability or willingness to make any decisions for so long that we're not sure. Eventually, Maud seems to choose the suffrage movement, but then again, she still doesn't seem to care about it that much.
Maud works at an industrial laundry facility—the same one where her mother worked with the baby Maud strapped to her back (In these scenes, which paint the place as a deathtrap, we wonder why no one brings up workers' rights or unions). There are rumblings and murmurs about women's suffrage, mostly coming from Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is scheduled to testify before the House of Commons about her job and how the right to vote would improve her life. Maud goes along out of curiosity and ends up making her own statement before the assembled Members of Parliament, much to the disapproval of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw).
The sincere believers—such as Violet, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), and Emily Davison (Natalie Press)—don't do much in the movie, apart from encouraging the indecisive Maud to finally make up her mind one way or the other. The shortest shrift goes to Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), an actual (as in genuine and non-fictional) revolutionary, who receives two scenes (a speech and her being whisked away from the police). Pankhurst's story gets the second-hand treatment for the rest of the movie, as headlines announce that she's in hiding and the suffragettes debate whether or not she has softened in her views on public disruption as a legitimate tactic. The movie repeatedly tells us how influential and important Pankhurst is to this movement, but apparently, she's not important enough to warrant more than in-passing mentions.
Instead, Maud's story is the one with which Morgan goes, and its melodramatic beats, involving her ousting from her family and society at large, feel far too manufactured for it to make much of an impact. The scenes in the movie that do work do so, oddly, when Morgan and director Sarah Gavron veer away from the central character, offering a more generalized view of the conflicting political sentiments of the time.
The government's opposition to the movement comes in the form of a police inspector played by Brendan Gleeson. Despite the contrivance of one character representing so much, the way he goes about undermining the morale of the group, through public shaming and mass arrests, sets up some legitimate stakes in the movie, which are absent from Maud's story.
This simply isn't the right narrative for the story Suffragette wants to tell. The movie lacks a sense of context (Note the way the conclusion goes from a tragedy to a public outpouring of support without explaining how they tie together). There are other stories within the movie and outside of it that could provide that viewpoint, and we spend most of this movie wondering why those stories remain untold in favor of this one.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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