Suffragette is a movie brimming with potential. Set in 1912, it recounts British women’s struggle to earn the right to vote. It’s told through the lens of laundress Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan) who becomes radicalized after witnessing a protest on her way home from work. Her encounter leaves her questioning the confines of her daily life and the oppression she faces at the workplace. The star-studded cast also includes Meryl Streep, in a brief cameo as movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and Helena Bonham Carter as a chemist turned bomb maker. But more importantly, the screenplay was written by a woman (Abi Morgan, known for Shame (2011) and The Iron Lady (2011)) and directed by a woman (Sarah Gavron). Yet it fails to assemble these seemingly brilliant pieces into a cohesive puzzle. Suffragette hints that in 2015 the fight for gender equality still has a long way to go, but lacks the drama to crystallize these claims. It’s a film with its heart in the right place, but ultimately forgettable.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Producers: Alison Owen, Faye Ward
Writer: Abi Morgan
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Editor: Barney Pilling
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Anne-Marie Duff, Grace Stottor, Geoff Bell, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Lawrence, Meryl Streep
Premiere: September 4, 2015 – Telluride
US Theatrical Release: October 23, 2015
US Distributor: Focus Features
The overall structure of Suffragette is compelling: present a relatable protagonist who can represent how an everyday woman might become political under dire circumstances. Originally reluctant to call herself a suffragette, Maud starts recognizing her daily oppression after testifying about her workplace in front of parliament: her boss starts raping his workers as young as age 12, her husband earns more than her for less work, she is responsible for raising her young son, etc. Throw in a few recognizable stars who play inspiring historical characters and you have yourself a movie, right?
Unlike, Steve McQueen’s Hunger or Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Suffragette lacks the true horror that makes a film resonate. The second half starts to feel very patchwork, as if Gavron were rushing to check certain modes of suffering off the list. Though viewers rarely enjoy the trauma film can inflict on its audiences, visual pain can lend the weight and thrust that shape a compelling story. Suffragette tends to shy away from depicting anything too scarring. Yes, Maud and her compatriots go on a hunger strike during a prison sentence and yes, the guards forcibly pour milk down her throat. But the prison montage lasts maybe 5 minutes total. We sneak glimpses of these atrocities but never fully assume the protagonists’ viewpoints. Gavron’s camera flinches, letting her audience off the hook while undermining her own story.
Most developed is Maud’s relationship with her young son, Georgie. Kicked out of the house by her confused husband, Maud is forced to steal Georgie away from school to spend time with him. On his birthday, she barrels her way into the house to give him a birthday present, only to find that her husband has found a new couple to adopt Georgie. The film teases an interesting conflict: is motherhood diametrically opposed to activism? How does radicalization redefine the role of mothers? In fact, Suffragette introduces a handful of these tricky scenarios. Bonham Carter’s character, Edith, works closely with her husband on her political plots. He supports her actions until the final hours, when he locks her in a closet to prevent her from attending a demonstration, because “her heart can’t handle it.” What role can men play in the fight for gender equality and how does their privilege override the efforts of their female counterparts? These questions offer an opportunity for nuance, but Suffragette never stops chugging onward to explore any answers.
I’m not sure how you’re supposed to feel after watching this movie: uplifted by the original suffragettes, depressed that some women still do not have the right to vote in 2015, sad that workplace harassment is still very much a reality today, angry that women do not have the plurality of identity expression afforded to men? I wanted this movie to be so much more. I wanted to feel like I needed to dash from my seat and protest in front of Donald Trump’s house. Instead I felt placated. I fear holiday moviegoers will leave the theater and fail to contemplate the current state of sexism any further. It is not a rallying cry; it is a dampened whimper.