Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan’s Suffragette takes events from semi-recent history which have previously been ignored by filmmakers and delivers an awards-bait movie that fails on multiple levels. Throughout the film, Gavron and Morgan seem to be unable to decide if what they want to show is the real-life struggle that led to women being able to vote in the United Kingdom or a simplified Dickensian “everything is filthy and horrible” drama set in the London of 1912. The end result: Suffragette viewers will likely turn to Netflix for documentaries to learn more about this important fight.
Gavron’s film revolves around Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a lowly East London laundry worker struggling with a low-paying job, a young son with a chronic cough, and a husband (Ben Whishaw) who is the early 20th equivalent of a modern men’s rights activist. Despite working at a facility with horrible conditions and being assaulted by her boss, Maud is seemingly of the opinion that to protest any of this would be considered unladylike, and so she simply suffers through it all. Things change, however, after she befriends a rock-throwing coworker named Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud joins the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, a spark plug for the movement, who uses disguises and under-cover late-night speeches in an effort to avoid the police that have been chasing her. Pankhurst is played by Meryl Streep in a role that surely only required a few hours of her time. Although she’s barely in the film, chances are we will once again hear talk about yet another Oscar nomination for Streep despite the fact that her presence in the film feels more like stunt casting than anything else.
As fate would have it, shortly after joining WSPU Maud is arrested by Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a cop charged with stifling the growing movement by any means necessary. While Maud at first resists the charge that she is a key member of the WSPU, she decides the patriarchy’s attempts to control her are more than she can stomach, and soon she is stuffing explosives down mailboxes and planning to disrupt the king’s appearance at a very popular race in order to bring more attention to suffragettes.
Sadly, as good as Mulligan is in the film, she can only rise so far above the material that she has been given. Whereas a seasoned director would make Maud a hero to rally around, in Suffragette she is transformed into a sad martyr figure that is designed to be pitied rather than admired. While the female characters in Suffragette are clearly on the right side of history, one can only guess what a movie about these women would have been like if its lead had been portrayed as a champion and not a victim.