You’d think a period piece concerning the women’s suffragette movement in the U.K. would be an uplifting slam dunk. I mean championing a women’s right to vote is not exactly a controversial notion unless, according to the movie’s closing credits, you’re Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of accessible femininism that everybody can get behind. Unfortunately what should have been an unimpeachable drama becomes a tedious chore with a mangled narrative that thwarts an inspiring true story.
The screenplay has fashioned the UK suffrage crusade around a fictional group of working class women. If your knowledge about their struggle is centered around actress Glynis Johns singling “Sister Suffragette” in Mary Poppins, then this movie should be quite an education. Yes they do in fact wear those sashes and bonnets, but they aren’t interested in peaceful protest. These women are violent. First it starts with throwing rocks at store front windows. Then it’s on to blowing things up, first mailboxes, then the prime minister’s home.
Meryl Streep pops up briefly to inspire the masses as a leader of the British suffragette campaign. And by briefly, I mean if you use the restroom, you’ll miss her. She plays political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the few roles literally based on a real person. Women have been fighting for more representation in Parliament for some 50 years, she laments. Civil disobedience has now given way to a radicalized cause prone to violence as the sole route to change. She inspires Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to go from law abiding housewife to rabble rouser. “We break windows, we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to” she cries.
A great actor can rise above conventional, even bland, filmmaking. I thought this as I watched Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. She is convincing as Maud, a working wife and mother, who is indirectly recruited into the movement. This occurs when she is asked to read a speech detailing horrible conditions at the laundry to a cabinet committee, on behalf of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud does this because her friend’s face is badly bruised after having been beat by her husband. It would seem that condition would actually lend more power to Violet’s words, but that idea is never even considered. Carey Mulligan as Maud is barely concerned about the vote at the beginning, but her transformation into a raging extremist becomes a compelling character arc.
Maud’s conversion from mild mannered housewife into left wing revolutionary is effective in Carey Mulligan’s hands. She transcends the material. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The film is filled with clichés not people. Meryl Streep’s part is too small to make a difference. Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai all portray fictional composites that represent types. Natalie Press, on the other hand, is the very real Emily Davison. It’s unfortunate she’s more of a plot device than a person. She provides a climax of sorts. Oh but the men fare even worse. Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband as an unforgiving man who’d rather kick his wife out into the street and give up his only child for adoption, than have a conversation with his wife. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell) is a snarling sexual predator and shop-floor tyrant that does everything but twirl his mustache. Meanwhile the police bash lady demonstrators senseless with batons.
Suffragette is a pedestrian account that fails to be incisive. The screenplay by Abi Morgan paints their experience in broad strokes. These are supposed to be our mothers and daughters, but they aren’t human, they’re shortcuts to character development that short change a powerful saga. It’s interesting to note that Abi Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady which was another narratively weak script. Maud loses her husband, child, job, home, basically everything in her life. She’s even thrown in jail and force fed with tubes in a particularly hard to watch scene. On paper, this chronicle should’ve been a soft sell for today’s viewer. It’s the ultimate indignity to the struggle of these brave women that you unwittingly start to question Maud’s decisions. Was becoming a domestic bomber and arsonist really the correct path? This shouldn’t happen in a tale about courageous women fighting for equal rights, but strangely it does.