“Suffragette” feels somewhat like the cinema’s equivalent of getting a flu shot. It’s a necessary boost of social consciousness that is good for the way it keeps the world honest. But is it fun or enjoyable, something worth looking forward to? Ehh.
Sarah Gavron’s direction gives some urgency to the century-old tale of British women gaining the right to vote that might otherwise reek of mothballs. The film does not need its scrolling list of dates for women’s suffrage worldwide before the credits to convey this. Good filmmaking renders fact recitation dull at worst, unnecessary at best.
Though Gavron’s frequent use of shaky-camera as a shorthand for intense moment is rather uninspired, “Suffragette” feels appropriately militaristic and angry given its subject. She conveys this most effectively when Abi Morgan’s script focuses on the women’s suffrage movement and the splintering divisions within its ranks. Some prefer a more aggressive, confrontational approach; others, however, support playing the politics of respectability to eventually curry enough favor for their right to vote.
Thankfully, the world seems in agreement that women should have the right to determine their own destiny by casting a vote at the ballot box. Yet these sections that specifically examine the challenges of organizing social action prove so compelling because they are applicable to plenty of modern movements, be it LGBTQ rights, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. At times, “Suffragette” even recalls “Selma” in the way it presents a fascinatingly nuanced but generalizable portrayal of organizing collective civil disobedience.
Where “Suffragette” falls short, though, is the chosen protagonist. Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a fictional character, which is patently obvious watching the film. She has a completely contrived character arc, calibrated to provide a convenient entry point. Like the main characters of many social upheaval stories, Maud is rather ignorant and uninitiated into the cause at the start. But after observing the work of early activists and opening her own eyes to the injustices all around her, she quickly becomes a major figure in the movement.
Maud gets inspired by a rousing speech by Emmaline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), becomes alienated from her husband (Ben Whishaw), and gets regular run-ins from a boorish police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) who wants nothing more than to quash her movement. It all feels so typical and mundane, a clash with how Morgan writes the thorny complexities facing the women’s suffrage movement on the whole. Worse, Maud’s hackneyed arc gives the audience a sense of comfort in knowing the ultimate resolution will come out favorable in time. She’s an all-too sunny center for an otherwise pleasantly prickly package.
Strangely, the film’s climax – which feels like it arrives 20 minutes too soon – has little to do with Maud. Just add it to the list of confusing contradictions at the heart of “Suffragette,” the film unsure of where to direct all its well-meaning energy. Nice as certain components may be, what’s the takeaway? What’s the call to action?
Only the lunatic fringes of society believe that women should not be allowed to vote. Gavron and Morgan are far too fixated on tackling these ignorant fools in their own time to point out where those sentiments have migrated today – protecting unequally gendered pay, squelching female drive in the office, or controlling women’s health in the government. B- /