'Suffragette' Reduces a Revolution to a Well-made Story

‘Suffragette’ offers a history lesson, but turns it into melodramatic, sentimental folklore, rather than an episode whose implications remain relevant today.

Suffragette Directed by Sarah Gavron; written by Abi Morgan; with Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep

Good intentions run up against limited cinematic ability in “Suffragette,” directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan (who also wrote other movies about real-life female figures, such as “The Iron Lady” and “The Invisible Woman”). The film is set in 1912, and its plot materials bring to mind certain Victorian melodramas about distressed women and mothers made during that same period, even if those melodramas savored the suffering of their heroines, while “Suffragette” shows how anguish transforms its own heroine into an activist for women’s right to vote.

Cinematically speaking, “Suffragette” is a conservative picture, and when this clashes with the movie’s aim of saluting one of the most important revolutionary movements of the 20th century, the result cannot help but disappoint. The film offers a history lesson mainly to those who never heard of the suffrage movement. While occasionally it does point to the problems and ideological discord within the struggle, everything seems a little too pat, and history never really is that simple. The movie is a tribute to the suffragists and aims to inspire our admiration for their courage and sacrifice. To achieve this, it opts for formulaic narrative devices intended to push our emotional buttons and cause the most easy, immediate kind of emotional response. This flaw is especially evident in the case of the main heroine, Maud Watts, a fictional character whose story is composed of pieces from the biographies of several real-life women.

Maud (Carey Mulligan) is a 24-year-old wife and mother who works with her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), in the same laundry where her mother also worked. The job is hard, the hours long, the massive machines difficult to handle; the work conditions are hazardous to the women’s health, and their boss harasses them sexually. At the beginning Maud believes that this is just what life is like for a working-class woman: 
doing grueling work all day, and then caring for her husband and young son in the evening.

Maud has, of course, heard of the suffragettes, who protest society’s treatment of women and even express their outrage by aggressive means, such as smashing shop windows. But she does not believe that they have anything to do with her, until she learns that some of her fellow workers at the laundry identify with the suffrage movement and may even be involved in it. One of them convinces Maud to go to a meeting, and that’s where her troubles begin, along with her metamorphosis into a political activist. Soon enough she finds herself with the opportunity to address parliament in front of David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (this scene reminded me too much of those moments in old-fashioned musicals when a novice singer gets to go onstage in front of a large audience and, after a hesitant beginning, finally finds her voice).

In this image released by Focus Features, Carey Mulligan portrays Maud Watts, center, in a scene from 'Suffragette.'
AP

Mixing fact and fiction

Maud’s husband, like most of the suffragists’ husbands, is opposed to her activity; when people in their neighborhood find out what she has been up to, she gets dirty looks from men and women alike. Not only that, but Maud’s husband even throws her out and refuses to let her be in touch with their son (a fact that Gavron and Morgan must have drawn from the various 
biographies they used). She is also arrested and confronts a threatening police inspector (Brendan Gleeson), who pressures her to spy on her friends for the cops. Along with some of her friends and the most committed of the activists, a pharmacist named Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud goes to prison, where the suffragettes go on a hunger strike that the prison officials try to break by force-feeding them (this bit of the movie yields a rare scene that is powerful without being melodramatic or sentimental, and without trying to inspire us).

The movie mixes fictional characters with such real-life figures as Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), whose act of self-sacrifice (she stepped in front of King George V’s horse in a protest at an upper-class horse race and was trampled to death) was a formative moment in the history of the suffrage movement. Davison might have made a more interesting heroine than Maud, but the movie does not show us much of her before her dramatic end; perhaps Gavron and Morgan believed that her story is too depressing, while Maud’s is inspirational. With the same caution we see throughout the movie, they document Davison’s death in a way that won’t shock us too badly. Maud even gets to attend a secret gathering and hear a speech by the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, who stands on a balcony of an elegant house looking out over the gathered crowd of women. She is played by Meryl Streep, who adds a touch of respectability to the movie, but her short performance joins a too-long line of impersonations Streep has recently done, some good, others less so. Her role in “Suffragette” borders on a caricature of a refined British lady.

Luckily for the film, Carey Mulligan’s acting is skillful and frequently poignant. As a whole, however, “Suffragette” fails to achieve its main goal, which is to breathe new life into the work of the suffragettes. Quite the contrary, even; the movie traps their activity inside a “well-made” picture (in the unflattering sense of the term), turning it into melodramatic, sentimental folklore rather than a historical episode whose implications remain relevant today. We are supposed to be impressed by the careful 
period reconstruction, the faded palette of the cinematography, and the dramatic music that gives too much emphasis to the story’s peak moments. But the result is ultimately a string of events, not a work whose cinematic momentum builds up beyond the hackneyed feel of British period dramas and television shows. There is too much story in “Suffragette,” told in a direct, rather dull cinematic fashion; what the movie lacks is a gaze to intensify this story and enrich it more than a century after it took place. The suffragettes, whose struggle is not yet complete, deserved to have that story told by a better, more complex and bolder film than this one.