We have an inherent tendency to want to give the benefit of the doubt to a piece of art with “good intentions”. In the case of Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s English women rights docudrama, the well-meaning intention is there in spades but the product itself is bungled and bandaged, thick with platitudes and disastrously short on emotion. For a feature documenting a major historical event that saw children torn from the arms of their mothers, clumps of activists jailed and tortured for sticking to their egalitarian beliefs and women brutalized for expressing their desire to be able to vote alongside the men, Suffragette is almost appallingly, unforgivably devoid of organic impact.
Suffragette is an Oscar solvent in the worst of ways; a diluted solution of historical importance and failing narrative potency. It’s an exercise in putting the cart before the horse – of letting its sense of importance overwhelm the very thing that makes a film good in the first place. First and foremost, a film must be interesting. Suffragette, by and large, is not.
Suffragette, you see, places too little value in its characters. We feel very little emotional attachment to the characters because they don’t feel alive; they feel like composites of historical circumstance. The men are nothing short of monsters. The women are flogging posts. Everyone is the poster child for the worst possible example of this time period and, in effect, no event – no matter how heart-wrenching it ought to be – manages to involve us on an emotional level.
It should come as no surprise that Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), the chief protagonist of Suffragette, is not a real person. She’s a composite of historicity. She is the William Wallace of the women’s rights movement; an icon by coincidence and coincidence alone. That pretty much every single awful thing that was brought down upon the women foot soldiers of the early feminist movement is brought down upon Maud Watts makes her plight that much more surreal and distant. As we bear witness to her pincushion of a life coming painfully underdone, she may as well be disemboweled. Her plight is basically period piece torture porn.
The affair begins with Maud working dutifully in a factory as an upper management seamstress with no real authority. On her way home to join husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son George (Adam Michael Dodd), she finds herself entrapped by a flash mob of female activists, producing bricks from baby strollers and discharging them through nearby store windows. “Vote for women!” “Vote for women!” To them, actions speak louder than words. And they’re tired of words. Funny, I swear I just saw a film with a very similar premise…
Before long, Maud finds herself wrapped up in the movement, working alongside real historical figures like Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and even meeting once with movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in nothing more than a cameo). However the film is so quick to breeze through her various relationship with the many women working for the movement that we never get acquainted enough to care. By and large, Gavron fails to produce anything more than a cursory glance at each of the supporting cast and characters with rich implied histories are left with their stories as just that: implied. In a cast that includes some of today’s best working actresses, there’s not one character aside from Maud who stands out.
This proves diabolical to the big events that come later in the film simply because so many characters are shuffled into and out of the fold that our ultimate emotional footings is shaky at best and disinterested at worse. Since we never get the time to develop any relationship with the characters, we thereby don’t really care about their ultimate outcomes. That they are arrested or tortured or even killed is tragic only insofar as history itself is tragic. Do not, however, expect to feel sadness, or even empathy, waft over you (as it certainly should.)
Mulligan is confident in the role and stands a half decent shot at an Oscar nomination, if only for the aforementioned “sense of importance” that Suffragette seems to be sailing in on. However if you’re looking for an example of Mulligan putting in better work just this year, look to Far From the Madding Crowd. Her role their is equally interested in “gender equality” but it actually has some oomph and nuance as well.
Easily the most frustrating aspect of Suffragette is just how shamelessly it lobbies for an Oscar. And while on paper, it looks good – the sets are appropriately drab, the streets suitably puddly – and the performances are solid – though never great and the inclusion of Streep screams Oscar greed – but Suffragette seems like a product manufactured for awards glitz and glamour and awards glitz and glamour alone.
CONCLUSION: Confusing suffrage for suffering, ‘Suffragette’ is a political period piece with a conflated ego and very little sense of narrative purpose that fails to bring genuine emotion to the women’s rights movement.