Film Review: Suffragette

Every year, about this time, the cinemas are flooded with biopics and historical films. It’s Oscar season! Time for awards and intellectual films destined for gold-statue status. I’ll admit, I love Oscar season. These are my favorite kinds of films: ones that make you want to go home and learn more about the subject. Rarely do these films leave your psyche as easily as the latest budget-busting mega-pic can.

This year, Suffragette has made quite a splash with the period locations, costumes, and an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, and Helena Bonham Carter. But another reason why this film has generated so much publicity is due to the paralleling #womeninfilm movement, the now-past #VotingMatters election promo, and also the now approved right for women in Saudi Arabia to vote.

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The film begins in 1912 with Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and other women washing laundry in a warehouse with a politician speaking in voice over about how women can’t handle politics. The juxtaposition is obvious: keep women doing “women’s work” while the men talk and talk.

Maud is sent on an errand down old Oxford Street when a group of women start throwing stones in shopping windows causing sheer chaos pushing Maud literally to the ground. The filmmakers do a lot of set up to show just how fragile and complacent she is in the world outside her bubble. She doesn’t think to stand up or even participate in such nonsense until a suffragette and colleague sees her in the fray and prods her in to attending the next meeting.

She decides to go and just “listen” which turns into active participation in the movement. Her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is a weak man who picks his battles against his weaker wife. But when she starts to stand up for herself against the government for what she believes is right, her husband defaults to the only power he has left: authority as a man and the one who has sole rights over their child.

The plot is quite formulaic in this: how far down toward rock bottom must Maud go before taking up the fight? How broken does her spirit need to be?

Since history has told us that women in the UK finally did get the vote in 1918, the ending is not a surprise. However, many don’t know what the event was that finally made the government stand up and watch. That was a pivotal moment, not only in the film, but also with Maud.

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The film was beautifully shot with skillful images of 1912 London and phenomenal acting by the cast. While some of the characters were actual suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison, Maud was fictional as was her story. But what the filmmakers tried to do is put together a composite of the women’s suffering into one woman.

That’s a lot of responsibility for Mulligan to carry, but it also cheapens it. Since this is a historical story, I would have much rather seen Maud as a real person fighting for her right to vote. Instead, I’m fed a story within history. I have no doubt what happens to Maud actually did happen to dozens if not hundreds of women, but the ambiguity leaves questions to be answered.

Another big issue this movie tries to tackle is domestic abuse and how commonplace it was. When Maud is arrested after a large demonstration at Parliament, Detective Steed, (Brenden Gleeson) who was hired to squash the Votes for Women movement, tells the officers to drop the women off at home and let their husbands deal with them instead of hauling them into jail.

In a time where men ruled and women were only used as pack mules and baby-makers, this was not an idle threat. Men could do whatever they wanted behind closed doors or out in public and wouldn’t be questioned. We see it on the faces and ribs of some of the women, but what Sonny does to Maud is much worse. The only way he can inflict pain on Maud is with the most unfair and unbelievable move a mother can imagine. This begs the question on how many types of abuse women were subjected to.

However, the film only gives just enough to cover the basics. It doesn’t go any deeper than surface facts and events.

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The film shines a light on the historical fight women endured to get their voice heard, but I can’t help but question the timing of the release. Trailers for the film were released to coincide with the #VotingMatters campaign here in the UK to encourage more women voters to exercise their right. Was this film made and released to further political agenda or was the film released for its importance? If this film were released in 2018 for the 100 year anniversary of women (over 30) getting the vote, would it have had a better marketing opportunity or did the filmmakers rely on the election and news coverage for Saudi Arabian women getting the vote this year to push their film?

I realize many people go to the cinema to be entertained and not to ask these types of questions, but I just wonder what the planning strategy was for this important subject matter. In 2018, will anyone remember this movie and use it as a “remember, remember” opportunity?

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Suffragette was a beautiful film with a beautiful cast and a beautiful story. However, there is no challenge to it, no surprise, no depth. It’s “too easy” as The New Yorker puts it.

What “Suffragette” is in fact about is so substantial, so serious, and, at times, so surprising, that the movie’s lack of vision (both literal and metaphorical), its failures of imagination, its built-in inhibitions and shortcuts, are all the more unfortunate. They keep a decent and worthy, amiable and unchallenging film short of the greatness of the subject itself. — Richard Brody

3 out of 5 stars

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