Suffragette (2015)

11/22/2015  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

It’s difficult finding a way into Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. Some have criticized and even protested it over whitewashing the movement depicted in the film. On the one hand, they’re not wrong. Suffragette is one of the whitest movies you’ll see all year, with not a single person of color depicted in its entire 106 minutes. On the other hand, it’s problems by no means end at under-representing minorities, so accusing it of casual racism seems like low-hanging fruit. Suffragette may be a genuinely well-intentioned endeavor, but in trying so hard to glorify its subject, it loses sight of its own characters.

The film opens with title cards explaining the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain. The year is 1912, and as laundry girl Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) walks home, she finds herself in the middle of a riot between the police and women smashing shop windows in a demand for their right to vote. When Maud goes to hear her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) speak in front of Parliament, Maud is forced to take her place, explaining her working conditions to Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller). This emboldens Maud to seek out her local suffrage movement, led by chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), which eventually pits her against Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). Steed — along with every other man in the film — claims he’s just doing what’s in Maud’s best interest, which just naturally happens to be keeping people like her in line.

Brendan Gleeson and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette

Brendan Knows Best was cancelled after only six episodes.

Suffragette’s central focus is on Maud, and we follow her journey from unassuming laundry girl to foot soldier in the army of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in the queen mother of glorified cameos). Her involvement with the movement is at first enlightening, but soon creates a rift between herself and her community. Maud slowly but surely alienates herself from her employer, but more importantly loses the love and respect of her husband (Ben Whishaw), who ultimately throws her out of the house because he’s too weak to deal with his wife suddenly growing a spine. This splits Maud’s attention between working for Pankhurst’s cause and finding a way to stay with her young son. Likewise, the film struggles in deciding which of these two stories is more important.

If there were any resolution to Maud’s personal thread, the film might have come out a bit stronger. Among all the real-life characters depicted here, though, Maud Watts is a complete fabrication. There’s no hard and fast rule that characters in biopics must be based on real people, but in a story about one of the key political movements of the 20th century, it seems strange to focus so tightly on one fictional character. If Maud had only been a cipher, meant to give us a sense of the living conditions for lower class women in 1912, that would have been fine. Instead, the film weaves Maud into key moments of the movement, so we assume she’ll see things through to the end. Carey Mulligan can move mountains with nothing but a dour gaze, and she does some wonderful work here, but the longer it rolls on, the more she becomes sidelined in favor of depicting actual history.

As the final scene fades to black and the expository title cards tell us how the suffrage movement shakes out (with a list of all the countries that have granted women the vote), there is no mention of Maud. Of course there isn’t, because Maud never existed. But then why did we just spend so much time with her? We agonize over the loss of her family, cheer as she sticks it to the man, weep as she’s forced to sleep in an abandoned church. But to what end? The simple answer is that at a certain point, the film stops being about Maud Watts. Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan are so dead set on telling the women’s suffrage story that they lose track of the actual story they’ve been telling.

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette

That glance alone landed Meryl Streep a Golden Globe nomination.

There are odd touches throughout the film that help break up the monotony of this history lesson, though. When Maud first speaks in front of Parliament, Lloyd George gives her words of encouragement. (“The finest eloquence is that which gets things done.”) Suddenly the film’s drab color palette seems a bit brighter, as though Maud finally feels hopeful for the future. That brightness quickly fades as Parliament soon announces no intention of changing the law, and soon Maud finds herself in prison following a riot. That one moment of hope is dashed through a subtle flourish of cinematography. Elsewhere, Brendan Gleeson’s scenes at the police station are staged like an old-timey episode of CSI, with all the inspectors standing around a giant table of evidence, stroking their beards and talking about women as though they were serial killers. These scenes would be downright comical if they weren’t juxtaposed with scenes of officers beating women in the street.

While Suffragette employs a number of visual flourishes to liven up the proceedings, little of it actually works to illuminate the story. For every scene in which the lighting reflects Maud’s mood, there are ten in which a character has to explain who Emmeline Pankhurst is, or why her tactics are effective. After abandoning any notion of wrapping up Maud’s story, the most effective device in the film comes when the very public death of Emily Davison (Natalie Press) transitions into actual footage of Davison’s funeral procession. Ultimately, Suffragette suffers from a terminal case of telling when it could be showing, to the point that it starts feeling like homework. It’s an admirable piece of work, but it’s the film equivalent of having a substitute teacher in history class.

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Carey Mulligan, Heartbreakingly Good
A Script That Values History Over Character
A Drab Yet Striking Visual Palette
Telling Instead of Showing
Whitewashing History

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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