Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette brings to life the story of the struggle of women to win the right to vote in the early part of the 20th century.
It’s a good story worth telling and it should never be forgotten how oppressed women were here in the UK -and across the world- not so long ago. Arguably it’s still a relatively fresh wound and something that resonates even today.
This film follows the specific struggle of a woman named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), an East London Laundry worker who initially wants nothing to do with the cause instead preferring to keep her head down and get on with her life as best she can. She is spurred into action gradually as she starts to understand the true meaning of the word “rights” and it starts to dawn on her what she cannot do within the confines of her social situation.
Maud is a very sympathetic character who has a life many can relate to. She works hard in her job, loves her husband and son and is initially content with her life. There’s a growing sense of unrest around her and initially it seems to make sense for her to keep herself removed from the movement.
Mulligan is excellent in the role and Maud’s journey through the film feels very real. She starts off somewhat timid and finds inner strength as she goes on. I quite liked the decision to cast a fictional character amidst the historical events as it gives writer Abi Morgan scope to go her own way when developing the personal struggle she faces. Her experiences are representative of what many women faced during this time so it all feels real without being real.
The downside to using a fictional character is that history seems to happen around her rather than because of her. She can break windows and blow up post boxes but can’t accomplish anything that is meaningfully historic on a large scale. It’s realistic for her not to be personally instrumental in furthering the cause but at the same time it feels that the focus could have been diverted elsewhere to tell a more complete story. For instance the rousing speech by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) isn’t as effective as it could be due to the fact that Maud feels so far away from it. Again, this probably represents how an average member of the Suffragette movement would feel listening to such a speech but in storytelling terms it distances the audience from the important historical events.
Maud’s personal struggle has some notable high points that hit the right emotional beats such as what her lack of rights really mean for her relationship with her son and how powerless she is around her husband’s decisions. Scenes featuring her treatment in prison are particularly harrowing in places such as the depiction of her being force fed.
The supporting cast are also very strong such as Helena Bonham Carter’s Edith Ellen who carries herself with the appropriate strength and conviction but her contribution to the overall story feels like it comes and goes too often to be as effective as it could have been.
Brendan Gleeson plays a no nonsense Inspector named Steed who is tasked with getting a handle on the situation. He isn’t featured an awful lot but when he is there is plenty of depth to his character. A particularly impressively written conversation with Maud has him detail that he recognises the law may not be fair but it is his job to enforce it so his opinion doesn’t matter. His dedication to duty overpowering his personal sense of right and wrong is an interesting character trait that could have stood much more development. Perhaps the film could have developed a mutual respect between Steed and Maud and had that be the central relationship of the film but the script misses a trick there.
In general the film works as character drama but not as historical drama. Given the subject matter it would have been better for the script to meet somewhere halfway but as it sits a lot of it feels like a sea of missed opportunities. It is certainly worth a watch for the performances and some powerful moments but the definitive film on women’s suffrage has yet to be made it seems.