Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is a gritty drama centered on the English suffrage movement in the early 20th century. The film focuses on the fictional character of Maud Watts, played excellently by Carey Mulligan, as well as a host of female talent that makes this historical drama happen. While often explosive and illuminating, this fictionalized drama ultimately fails to go big when it could – and should – have. With a running time of just 106 minutes the film simply isn’t long enough to tell such a historically important story. To be honest, it could have gone on for hours and this still wouldn’t have been long enough.
Carey Mulligan is a quiet talent, her roles hitherto are so meticulous and subtle it’s sometimes easy to forget she’s around making movies. She exhibits this power for subtle nuance unlike any actor I’ve seen in recent memory. Here Mulligan delivers another stellar performance as a working class woman at a large industrial laundry; we see Watts go from wife, mother, and worker to sacrificing it all for the much coveted right to vote.
Maud Watts would prefer to keep to herself, but as a firsthand witness to exploitation and sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s only a matter of time before she becomes involved with the suffragettes. After some reluctance Watts grows incredibly dedicated and militant with the cause, but her involvement begins to prove difficult for her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), neighbors, and employer holding Watts in contempt for her involvement with the suffragettes.
Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a Chemist working out of her supportive husband’s shop, and Carter does what she always does – owning her role. Meryl Streep makes an appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst, the prolific face of the suffragettes, but don’t let the posters and trailers mislead you; she only in the film for less than five minutes. It’s a great performance, but if you’re going in and expecting Streep to steal the show, maybe it’s best to stay home.
As the male lead, Brendan Gleeson is inspector Arthur Steed hunting down the suffragettes like witches, without empathy and exuding male chauvinism.
Initially, I had issue with the way the film ended, the final climactic moment the scene at the race tracks showing the death of Emily Wilding Davis (which occurred on June 4th, 1913). Women in Britain weren’t granted the right to vote until 1928, so you might wonder why the film ended on such a down note, and a scene that seemingly takes away from the movement itself. It felt like a robbery, to go through such a struggle and not succeed.
Upon reflection, however, I think the choice of ending with such a tragedy is a bold move by Morgan and Gavron, and really counter to how much social justice films end. By realizing how Watts becomes more and more adamant over her cause, the longevity of the results, and by not showing it outright helps illustrates the sluggishness for change in the real world.
Gavron’s direction is gritty and appropriate, but Abi Morgan’s script lacks bite, often failing to capture the real essence of relevant piece of history as it could have. This is somewhat ironic considering Morgan also penned Steve McQueen’s masturbatory Shame (which also starred Mulligan), which is far from safe as you can get.
The film looks magnificent, with appropriately drab look by production designer Alice Norrington and Eduard Grau’s cinematography matching Gavron’s edgy direction with good handheld work and visceral movement. Alexandre Desplat’s score is brilliant, like always.
By the time all the dust settles, Suffragette is an adequate picture with fantastic direction and fine acting, but one that seldom does more than the bare minimum, never digging deep within its characters – except for Watts, which Mulligan attacks with nuance and strength. Instead, it settles for showing a facade of the feminist movement. Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep’s performance feel like cameos, which is a shame as both are phenomenal actresses and feel underused here.
The suffragettes acts of terrorism are only glossed over as the film never delves too long on the problematic of acts of violence in activism, so the opportunity feels wasted, and losing a chance to gain another level of depth by showcasing some of the movement’s less laudatory moments.
I will give the film this; it’s timely and relevant, coming at a time when, although men and women have the equal right to vote, there is still a discrepancy in wages between them. There’s a scene where Watts talks about working since she was a little girl, casually remarking about the difference of pay she receives in comparison to men, which is obviously lower. There are still hurdles to overcome and the film’s feisty spirit is inspirational as a testament to the power and tenacious ability of female filmmakers, who can do anything men can, as well as it is a jarring reminder that the long road to equality is won one step at a time.