WRITTEN REVIEW – Suffragette (2015)
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Written by: Abi Morgan
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff & Meryl Streep
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Release Date: October 12th 2015
The story of women’s suffrage during the late 19th century and early 20th century is so important and continually relevant that it’s amazing that it’s never been portrayed on film before. With an increasing amount of scrutiny being placed on media for their portrayal of women, whether it’s films, video games, television, comics etc. now is probably one of the more ideal times to release a movie like ‘Suffragette‘, which proudly wants to tout its feminist credentials.
It comes from a predominantly female creative team, most members of the film crew were female (an increasingly difficult job-market for women) and has some of the biggest contemporary names in female acting-pools such as Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and continual rising star Carey Mulligan. With the events portrayed in the movie being just over a century old, there is a lot of material to draw from and a lot of introspection to inform a re-telling of the Suffragette movement, but does ‘Suffragette‘ deliver the movie that women’s suffrage deserves?
The year is 1912 and the women in England are unable to have a political say or input on the affairs of their country. ‘Suffragette‘ follows fictional Maud Watts (Mulligan), a wife and mother who has worked at a nearby laundry since she was 7 and her getting brought into the Suffragette movement; a militarised campaign to convince the government to give women the vote. However, being associated with Suffragettes such as Edith Ellyn (Bonham Carter) gives Maud a stigma as she’s kicked out of her house by her husband Sonny (Whishaw) and unable to see her son, George. But spurred on by the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep) Maud perseveres and fights with the movement to try and prove that women are just as deserving of the vote as men, no matter the cost.
It’s clear that from its very conception that ‘Suffragette‘ is a lot more concerned with being accessible than good. That makes sense from a certain perspective as the story of women’s suffrage hasn’t been the sole-factor of a movie before (it’s been portrayed in the background of certain films; for example Winifred Banks in ‘Mary Poppins‘ was a Suffragette). But in the current climate of still-needed and relevant feminism (the ending credits demonstrate that feminism and suffrage is STILL needed), it feels like ‘Suffragette‘ missed a lot of the important broad strokes of the actual events as well as manipulating certain historical moments to better serve a self-contained narrative.
For example, in 1912 not all men could vote. You had to be over the age of 21 and own a property over a certain value and women could vote in council elections and even stand in those council elections. Obviously, this is still dumb inequality but in terms of the political climate being portrayed in ‘Suffragette’, the narrative is “All men can vote. No women can vote”. It’s a compelling narrative to base a movie around with effective black-and-white morals but in terms of the actual history, this most definitely was not the case and the fate of Emily Davison, which acts as the climax of the movie, has been altered from the actual historical records in order to better serve Maud’s character arc. It’s a incredibly well done sequence but demoting her role in history as an influence for a fictional character is gauche at best.
Also, the fact that Emmeline Pankhurst only wanted votes for women over 35 and of certain classes goes un-mentioned in ‘Suffragette‘ and the more peaceful group “Suffragists” (led by Millicent Fawcett in 1912) might as well not even exist in this movie’s universe as they have absolutely no presence.
This is not to diminish the work of women’s suffrage during the time. Even if it wasn’t so absurdly one-sided as ‘Suffragette‘ portrays it to be, U.K. politics was inherently detrimental to the working class and was becoming increasingly insular and self-serving. Basically, it’s like today’s U.K. government except they were much more upfront and transparent about it back then. In that regard, women’s suffrage endeavoured to change that broken system that represented the minority and benefited ONLY the minority.
But basing ‘Suffragette‘ around a fictional female character who skirts around the edges of important historical events feels like the movie is more of a brief, accessible walking-tour of the movement as opposed to an effective piece of history being portrayed on film. It feels like the audience are just feet away from a more interesting and (more importantly) REAL story. Ideally, ‘Suffragette‘ would have been more of a historical ensemble epic where it followed numerous individuals over several years, but unlike the much maligned ‘Stonewall‘ or the incredibly troublesome ‘Titanic‘, ‘Suffragette‘ is able to overcome this issue because Maud Watts’ character arc is very well portrayed and Carey Mulligan is an absolute star in the making.
Maud is torn between wanting something that’s better for her gender as a collective and wanting a life of peace and love with her husband and son and the way ‘Suffragette‘ portrays that dynamic gives the movie a very personal edge. It’s an upgrade in protagonists compared to the similar ‘Pride‘ from last year (which, while a superior movie as a whole, has a much weaker audience-surrogate) as Maud’s persecution is accurately and effectively presented. Because she associates herself with such a militant organisation, she’s shunned by her neighbours and friends and her husband is unable to look after their child effectively because Maud keeps getting arrested for her campaigning.
Incidentally, the movie’s portrayal of Sonny, Maud’s husband, is phenomenally well balanced. It could have been so easy for screenwriter Abi Morgan to present Sonny as a single-minded, woman-hating villain, but Sonny is actually incredibly nuanced. He loves his wife, but he’s a product of his environment. He is belittled by his male co-workers because of his wife’s actions, he’s a victim of societal peer-pressure and what was considered “normal” a century ago. Are his actions bad? By today’s standards, yes. But his perspective is crystal clear and understandable with Ben Whishaw getting across that perspective perfectly. Also, Adam Michael Dodd as George Watts is really good in his on-screen debut.
Anyway, back to Maud. Carey Mulligan has done great work elsewhere such as ‘Doctor Who: Blink‘, ‘Drive‘, ‘The Great Gatsby‘ and ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ but with ‘Suffragette‘ she may have found her career-defining role. Maud is an unwilling participant in the world in the first act of the movie, but it’s really when she starts to adopt the Suffragette ideal that Mulligan is able to stop being a restrained performer and can deliver the goods. Mulligan is like a coiled spring in ‘Suffragette‘ and when she’s unleashed nearer the end of the movie the results are pyrotechnic.
The rest of the cast are decent, but mainly because the actors don’t have a lot to work with from the screenplay as this is Maud’s show. Helena Bonham Carter as famous Suffragette Edith Ellyn feels like stunt-casting as she’s become so well-known for playing off-beat characters that Edith doesn’t quite feel like a real person. It feels like the creative team wanted to get a big-name feminist actor and Helena Bonham Carter fit that mould and that’s the reason for her casting. And while Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst is PERFECT casting and could have easily been the most important role of her acting career, her appearance in ‘Suffragette‘ is a cameo and that’s putting it charitably. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all of Pankhurst’s scenes. Same for Natalie Press as Emily Davison who disappears from the movie for about an hour until she shows up in THE scene which she is required to be in.
Adrian Schiller as Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George is another historical cameo role, though it feels more appropriate for the subject matter, Anne-Marie Duff gives a strong supporting turn as Maud’s friend Violet and while Brendan Gleeson is good as one of the heads of police trying to bring down the Suffragettes, it’s hard to fight the feeling that his character only exists to give Maud an equally fictitious authority figure to talk to with righteous indignation.
A lot of the inherent strength of ‘Suffragette‘ comes from the shock factor that some of these events really happened to women. The movie opens with male politicians presenting ACTUAL arguments for why women shouldn’t vote (they don’t have the emotional stability, would only vote for their husbands etc.), the film portrays the dehumanising force-feeding that took place to the women going on hunger strike in prison as well as the abuse given to them during campaigns and their treatment in the work place. The movie also ends with the iconic events at the June 1913 Epsom Derby and if you know the events that took place before watching the movie it’s an incredibly tense sequence. Many of the minor historical accuracies also leave an impact. When Maud leaves prison for the first time, she’s greeted by a small group of Suffragettes who give her a medal for being locked up for the first time and Edith Ellyn was considered a “threat” by the police because she was educated.
Though, equally, there are many historical narrative gaps which make ‘Suffragette‘ a lesser experience. Later on in the movie Edith’s husband says that the Suffragettes’ increasing militarised tactics are starting to divide the movement, but we never see it. There were also a few women who simply didn’t want the vote and didn’t support women’s suffrage. This is touched upon for around 5 seconds early on (the scene in the trailer; “No one cares, love1”) but that’s really it. The movie also ends at a very abrupt time in history, especially since ‘Suffragette‘ is a short movie by biopic standards; only 106 minutes. Due to the story being told and the amount of time being spanned and the huge number of people involved then ‘Suffragette’ easily could have been 30/40 minutes longer. And the place where ‘Suffragette‘ ends seems to intentionally mislead the means in which women actually did get the vote a few years later during World War 1.
Whether it’s wilfully misleading its audience, or an unintended result of creative decisions, it still doesn’t come across well. Especially since this could be many people’s first exposure to women’s suffrage on film.
Also, while I’m talking about the historical aspects, I felt like the movie could have been a 15-rating to more accurately represent the frequent acts of violence on display in ‘Suffragette‘, particularly the prison force-feeding which I felt the movie held back from fully showing. Although many people I’ve spoken to said they found the force-feeding hard to watch so your mileage may vary. Maybe I’m just a sick person. I dunno.
As for the production values, ‘Suffragette‘ does a great job at replicating early 20th century through set-design, props, hair-dressing and accurate costumes. ‘Suffragette‘ also has great location work with it being the first film in history to be shot in the Houses of Parliament and there’s a great scope to the movie thanks to lots of extras and large sound-stages. Alexandre Desplat’s score is good, but it’s hardly his best work, the make-up effects are also very well done and it’s easily one of the better looking movies to come out of the U.K. this year…except for some of the bad shakey-cam.
Yes, I get why it’s done during some of the more action-heavy sequences, but having a scene where Maud is simple walking to work and the camera operator seems to think he/she is part of ‘The Blair Witch Project‘ is just…*vomits*.
BUT…is ‘Suffragette‘ a good movie? Yes. Is it the movie the Suffragettes deserved? I don’t think it’s quite there. Its heart is in the right place and it has a very righteous feel down to its core that is fiercely commendable, but I feel like a decision was made very early on in the conception of this movie that its primary goal was to be accessible above all else. It’s an incredibly brief walking-tour of Women’s Suffrage, but since it’s such a compelling and relevant subject it could/should have gone much further, not to mention it ignores a LOT of the necessary historical context. The fictional historical protagonist trope feels like the wrong approach, but Carey Mulligan makes it work by giving a star-making performance and the rest of the cast are solid, but under-developed (save for Ben Whishaw). It’s a solid introduction to the Suffragettes for mainstream audiences, but it should have gone much further and it should have been much broader.
I give ‘Suffragette‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 14th Oct 15