‘Suffragette’ is a tricky movie. On the one hand, there’s no denying the importance of its themes (which have oddly not been properly dramatized before), the talent of the actress at the center, or the handsome nature of the production. However, the film never extends beyond the basics. It’s merely as straightforward an introduction to the suffragette movement as possible, custom made for classroom screenings. The talent and potent subject matter could and should have led to something a little more.
After a few Cliff’s Notes lines of text to set up the context of the movement, we’re introduced to Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a poor and mistreated treated woman in turn-of-the-century London. She works in a laundrette that’s loaded with unsafe conditions and is supervised by a lecherous boss who has taken advantage of the young woman and her workmates on innumerable occasions. Her unquestioning husband (Ben Whishaw) clearly doesn’t view her as a person and is willing to accept just about anything to live and work. That fate was acceptable for Maud for quite some time, but the possibility of something more enters her life when she spots a suffragette throwing rocks through windows.
Gradually, Maud’s naïve yet battered soul finds her way into the world. She’s used as a Screenwriting 101 audience surrogate with major players in the movement (both historical and fictionalized) floating around and explaining all the important facts and themes to her and to viewers directly. Soon, secret meetings, protests, arrests, hunger strikes and unfortunate rendezvous with the police all appear with due diligence. Screenwriter Abi Morgan (‘The Iron Lady’) hits all the right beats and director Sarah Gavron (‘Brick Lane’) mixes handsome historical production values with intimate documentary-style photography to bounce between grit and drama. It works well without ever really excelling.
The cast is certainly spot-on. Mulligan continues her streak of strong and wise young women pushed to the brink. Helena Bonham Carter fairs best among the bland supporting players at inserting personality into an impassioned leader, pharmacist and bomb-maker. The great Brendan Gleeson uses his natural warmth to enliven an otherwise standard-issue policeman villain. Despite featuring prominently on the poster and in the marketing, Meryl Streep pops up for only five minutes simply because it feels like she should be in this movie. The central cast all do well and keep the handsome movie trudging through its meager if perfectly welcome goals. Unfortunately, something never quite clicks.
Part of the problem comes down to hinging the movie on an outsider to the main action. While this allows the filmmakers to hand audiences big heaping piles of exposition and background info in a dramatically satisfying manner, it also keeps the movie just slightly on the outside of the important historical events. It rarely feels like we’re at the heart of the matter, and that keeps things a little dull. Likewise, the movie frequently teeters over into melodrama for the sake of satisfying requisite emotional arcs or injecting some drama. Scenes like Maud being forced to give up her child might have emotional resonance, but of a type that feels cheaply tacked onto a story with far more interesting and moving avenues to explore.
Still, it’s difficult to outright hate ‘Suffragette’. It’s a slice of history that deserved a movie long ago, and even a tediously conventional take like this is a welcome addition. The cast is strong, the production is handsomely mounted, and nothing goes horribly wrong even if the film never quite soars as it should. This movie needed to be made. Now it’s here and hopefully it will inspire another batch of filmmakers to make a more challenging rendition of this story in response.