Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Premise: Set in Britain in the early twentieth century, a laundress (Carey Mulligan) gets involved in the suffragette movement. Her activism puts her on the radar of a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) and tensions between the suffragettes and the state escalate.
What Works: As a period movie, Suffragette does an excellent job of recreating the time. The film takes place in Britain in the early twentieth century and it captures the look of that period. Suffragette has a gritty reality to its costumes and set design and it doesn’t look like a movie production. That reality gives the fight for women’s rights dramatic immediacy; this isn’t an academic conversation nor are the suffragettes the clownish activists of Mary Poppins. Their concerns are real and the filmmakers do an effective job of setting these women against a background of violent patriarchy. The poor working conditions in the launderette and the sexual harassment of the female employees by the male supervisors make the cause real as do the sequences of police brutality against the activists. The filmmakers don’t shirk away from the violence and they strike very effectively. As a movie about a civil rights movement, Suffragette is admirable in the way that it avoids the Great Man approach (or in this case the Great Woman) that many historical films take. The recognizable leaders are present, namely Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep in a role that is mostly a cameo. But the focus of Suffragette is set upon the working class characters who are the machinery of the movement. The story centers on a fictional laundress played by Carey Mulligan. She begins as a bystander but quickly becomes involved in the cause. Mulligan’s performance is terrific. Her character is put through the ringer by her husband and by the legal system and Mulligan allows the character to be vulnerable and get physically and emotionally wounded even as she crusades for social justice.
What Doesn’t: The story of Suffragette comes up short. The movie is about the British women’s movement generally but the story lacks a dramatic shape. The storytelling flaws of Suffragette are revealed by comparing the film to 2014’s Selma, which told a similar story in the context of America’s civil rights movement of the 1960s. The story of Selma established a specific goal—the passage of the Voting Rights Act—and the characters struggled in Selma to get that legislation enacted. Selma focused on the major civil rights leaders but it also told the stories of minor players and the characters’ sense of self and their social consciousness expanded over the course of the movie. Suffragette bungles both of those aspects of its story. The film lacks any specific goal for the activists; the characters aren’t working toward a specific legal accomplishment and the story tends to be a random series of events. This is especially true in the ending. The climax is supposed to be a major event in British history but the drama fails to lead the viewer to that conclusion and the filmmakers resort to spelling it out on screen before the end credits. Suffragette also misses the mark with its characters. Mulligan begins as an apolitical outsider but she is quickly a self-identified suffragette; her transformation from observer to activist occurs quite early in the film and as a character she does not have anywhere to go from there. The film also ignores the complexity of the situation. The methods of the suffragettes gradually become more violent and at one point there is talk of division within the movement over methodology. But this tension is not dramatized and so the movie simplifies and ignores the interesting moral and ethical questions that are inherent to the subject matter.
Bottom Line: Suffragette is a decent historical drama of an important (and underappreciated) civil rights movement. The movie suffers as a piece of storytelling but it succeeds as a dramatic history lesson. That and Mulligan’s performance make it worth a look.
Episode: #570 (November 22, 2015)