Mulligan shows her true skill as an actress but is ultimately let down by poor directorial choices and a less than flavoursome script. Gavron is better suited to the editing suite and camera work.
The battle to secure the vote for women in England in the first part of the last century is probably not one with which you’d struggle to sympathise with. Of course many successful movies – Lincoln, Selma, or anything about the second world war – involve conflicts, which the audience comes pre-converted, there to enjoy the story-teller. With these films you know exactly what you’re getting.
And yet there’s something about a movie focusing on this political movement that brings inherent tension. Any figure within the film acting out these early misogynistic sensibilities is obviously going to be met with 21st century eye-rolling; these men are the ignorant fools, the sexist pigs and the political prigs. But with Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign and even more recently, Jennifer Lawrence’s pay-gap essay, we come to realise that while we’ve improved, equality still isn’t quite stable enough. This is why Suffragette‘s release is still incredibly important today and why it shouldn’t be avoided.
Given this, then, director Sarah Gavron does well to galvanise her story with a degree of urgency: the result of swift, assured camerawork and a brilliantly understated performance by Carey Mulligan. Gavron proves her metal with her first major film release with clean, crisp scenes and an assured spacial awareness that many directors seem to lack. Gavron and her cinematographer Eduard Grau shoot the scenes of protest like they’re contemporary news footage, using tight framing and a long depth-of-field to de-prettify the action, and lend it a bustling immediacy that sweeps you up into the mood of the moment. Unfortunately that metal is copper and the praise ends there.
Mulligan is Maud, a fictionalised character drawn to the movement less through political engagement than bubbling frustration at life. She works in a laundry, has done since she was a child, lives in a tiny flat with husband and co-worker Ben Whishaw and their young son. It’s a new role for Whishaw as the wet-blanket husband, but he pulls it off convincingly even if the character is repugnant. When a friend can’t testify to parliament about the plight of working women on account of being beaten up by her husband, Maud takes her place. And the opportunity to have her voice heard unlocks an anger which finds release in activism, but comes at quite a price.
Mulligan’s face is alive with all the subtlety the film around her sometimes lacks. At the start, her star wattage is muted; her eyes catch fire as she finds purpose in her work, even as her family life falls apart. That she wrings tears from you in one – albeit slightly shameless – scene feels quite an achievement. Helena Bonham Carter (as an educated chemist) and Anne-Marie Duff (a chirpy cockney) acquit themselves fine but their characters are much less developed than Mulligan’s. Duff does well to mark herself out among the crowd however and proves she’s more than just a veteran of television. Gavron has chosen to keep this on a smaller, more relatable level. The cameo of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst was meant to ignite hearts but fails; neat casting but ultimately not notable. Streep is fine and easily fills the role given to her, but is never allowed to manoeuvre enough to truly explore this incredible historical figure. Instead the leader of the movement is rendered a mere figure head at the front of a never fully imagined ship.
Mulligan has previously worked with scriptwriter Abi Morgan on Steve McQueen’s Shame; this screenplay is much more like Morgan’s for Gavron’s first film, Brick Lane, with a third act swing into Hunger-territory, as the women are incarcerated and protest in prison. Morgan intertwines socioeconomic detail with domestic melodrama as Maud leads us from the fringes of the fight to the firing line, though the lack of personal appraisal demerits the film somewhat. A few exchanges between Mulligan and Brendan Gleeson’s sceptical detective come close to crackling, but the dialogue employs more wordplay than feels credible: “If they want us to respect the law, they need to make the law respectable”. Exposition treads heavy at times, too: “The movement is divided. Even Sylvia Pankhurst is opposed to her mother and sister’s militant strategy.” This a movie that tells as well as shows and in doing so becomes at times, melodramatic.
The film is at its best in conveying the claustrophobia of repression, the mushrooming realisation some grievances are impossible to swallow. There is a little debate about the ethics of direct action, but it’s swiftly resolved: “We will win,” says Maud, helpfully. Perhaps it’s unfair to hope a strictly historical movie might try to chime louder with the present day, but there feels a missed opportunity here not so much in touching base with the current state of women’s rights but the merits of martyrdom. Ultimately while trying to depict a whole movement on a small scale within Maud’s story, the seriousness of the situation is lost and the emotive depth this film craves is starved.
One of the film’s key points is that those suffragettes who went the farthest for their cause were those willing to lose everything, and Maud’s composite status enables the filmmakers to more or less have their way with her — driving a wedge between her and Sonny (Ben Whishaw); denying her access to her young son George (an adorable Adam Michael Dodd); turning her into a social pariah; and more or less ensuring that she truly has nothing left to lose. Such outrages did of course befall women with tragic frequency, but the one-damned-thing-after-another manner in which they befall Maud Watts feels manufactured to the point of manipulative. It’s no small testament to Mulligan’s performance that she manages to be entirely convincing, even when the same can’t be said about her character’s increasingly desperate fall from grace.
But Suffragette doesn’t just exist on its own terms, but in its own time, too; it’s a peculiarly hermetic watch – the first world war, for instance, goes unmentioned, though this was crucial to the movement and one of women’s key arguments. If they could help during the war why are they incapable now? Gavron has made a decent film with near horizons, a civil disobedience picture that’s not as politely produced as you’d think. But unfortunately in hyper-focusing on a single protagonist the film lacks that emotional flavour that makes others of it’s kind such as Selma so prevalent.
Steamy sweatshops and grey-tinged London vistas add production design grit, evoking a world in which backbreaking work and strength-sapping silence are equally stifling. This is an important story and Suffragette tells it without stylistic fuss or frills in a solidly down-the-line fashion. It’s ultimately still worth a watch but it never quite lives up to expectation.
Suffragette (2015), directed by Sarah Gavron, is distributed in the UK by Pathe. Certificate 12A.