Sexual inequality is still very real. Even in developed countries where women have had equal voting rights for close to a century, women still have to deal with all manner of double standards pertaining to pay inequality, sexual activity, body image standards, etc. And of course, inequality isn’t just divided by gender. People of color are still mistreated and even killed by officers of the law, invariably resulting in protests and riots that go out of control and get even more people beaten and arrested and/or killed.
So here we are with Suffragette, a movie about the prime years of the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain. This would be somewhere around 1913, when women of the UK had decided that they were done asking nicely and nothing was going to get done unless some property got damaged. It’s perhaps worth noting that across the pond, another women’s suffrage movement had fought for and won the right to vote in the USA at roughly the same time as their British counterparts.
Anyway, the activists in the film resort to acts of destruction and anarchy because they feel they have no other way of making a difference. They can’t vote, after all, and anyone with the ability to do anything has a vested interest in making sure that women can’t be heard. So if women don’t have the ability to change the law, and if the law was in fact made with the overt purpose of keeping women subjugated, then why should women obey the law at all? Additionally, if people are to be arrested for property damage in the course of protesting for their right to be heard, isn’t that effectively a statement that property is more important than people?
Best of all, if women are to be punished for making themselves heard — with their jobs and families and liberties taken away from them — then it only gives the activists more motivation to make their voices louder, since they’ve got nothing left to lose. At the same time, however, it means that the activists may eventually start acting out of suicidal rage and a thirst for vengeance, rather than to advance a cause. Which means in turn that it’s only a matter of time before someone does something stupid.
It’s actually a delicate dance between the two sides. Both are so stubborn that they force each other into raising their voices, and then into escalating shows of force. This in turn leads to escalating violence and from there, someone will inevitably die. And the first one to get blood on their hands loses the moral high ground forever.
This is definitely an important story to tell, and there are so many ways in which it is still relevant today. So let’s start counting the ways in which the movie fumbles.
First of all, the visuals are awful throughout. Not only is the editing clumsy, but the camerawork uses close-ups, wide shots, and shaky-cam in all the wrong ways. I’m sorry to say that sophomore director Sarah Gavron’s bright idea of bringing tension or tragedy to a scene was to keep shaking the camera as hard as possible. It looks horrendous. And it certainly doesn’t help that everything has been made to look aggressively gray, with barely a drop of color to be seen.
This brings me to another problem with the film: It’s so depressingly dour. Comic relief feels crowbarred in on those rare few occasions when it’s present, and the film is way too heavy-handed with its message. We’re left with thin characters, a rote plot, and so many dull repetitive statements, because the filmmakers are outright obsessed with beating their audience about the head with the message that women should be treated as equals. There is absolutely no reason why, in 2015, any filmmaker should have to work so hard in selling that message to an American or British audience.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I said earlier that sexual inequality is still a thing and this is a story worth telling. The problem is that the filmmakers don’t take the step of connecting women’s equality then with women’s equality now. What does the fight for women’s suffrage have to do with closing the income gap? What does it have to do with getting access to birth control? What does it have to do with victims of sexual abuse who are afraid or unable to speak out? There are so many infuriating times when the filmmakers just barely brush up against those subjects, only to go right back to the foregone conclusion of “Votes for women!”
Which brings me to another huge fucking problem with this movie: Though this is a fictional story and most of its characters are fictional, it takes place against a very real backdrop and it features two very real historical figures. One of them is Emmeline Pankhurst, the influential women’s suffrage activist here immortalized by Meryl Streep. She appears in a grand total of one scene. The other character is Emily Davison (played by Natalie Press), an activist who was famously killed at the Epsom Derby in front of King George V and the international media. Her death galvanized the women’s suffrage movement and became a crucial step toward securing the vote for women. Yet in the movie, Davison is only a supporting player who barely even registers as a presence.
Why oh why couldn’t we have had a proper biopic about either of these women? They sound infinitely more interesting and relevant than the fictional main characters we got. Moreover, just try and imagine a movie with Davison as the protagonist, letting us follow along her journey and her development as a character until she ultimately kills herself for the cause at the end. That would have been a far more effective punch at the climax, instead of what the movie ultimately offered us.
To be clear, it’s not like all of the characters are completely without merit. For example, though we do get one two-dimensional scumbag womanizer (that would be Geoff Bell’s character), the other male characters are actually quite nuanced. The most prominent one would be Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), the detective charged with finding and stopping the suffragettes. But the twist is that it’s nothing personal for him — he’s got no problem with women seeking the right to vote, and there are some moments when he seems to quietly admire the activists’ tenacity.
No, Steed just has a problem with women breaking the law to get their point across. He knows that someone is going to get hurt sooner or later, and he’s desperately trying to stop the madness before that happens. Which means that he follows the path of least resistance, figuring that it would be easier to stop the protests than change the law. It’s a surprisingly tricky balance, conveying intimidation and warmth in just the right measure, but Gleeson has more than enough skill and screen presence to make it work.
Then we have Sonny Watts, played by Ben Whishaw. Here’s a man who’s too afraid of what everyone else thinks of him, so he tries to be the domineering husband and father that society seems to think he should be. Except he goes too far with that act, because he sucks at it. Basically put, he’s a gutless worm pretending to be a tough guy because he doesn’t have the spine to stand up and say that this chauvinistic attitude is totally wrong. The character could so easily have come off as completely unlikeable, yet Whishaw makes it abundantly clear that Sonny really does want to be a good person. He just has no idea how.
As for the female characters, I must admit that Meryl Streep wasn’t wasted in her glorified cameo. After all, Pankhurst is a constant offscreen presence throughout the movie, and Streep has more than enough charisma to sell herself as the leader and figurehead of a huge movement.
We’ve also got Helena Bonham Carter, playing a particularly militant activist. Edith Ellyn is a slightly unhinged woman who repeatedly renews her allegiance to the cause, pushing herself further and further past the endurance of mind and body. So naturally, the erstwhile Bellatrix Lestrange plays the role quite well.
On the other side of the spectrum is Violet Miller, played by Anne-Marie Duff. Her character development goes in the other direction, as Violet starts out devoted to the cause and slowly starts to question whether the movement’s destructive behavior is going too far. It’s a fascinating question of how much property damage is too much for the cause, and how much a person could ethically sacrifice in the name of a greater good. Unfortunately, the question is only brought up once — very briefly — and then she more or less disappears from the movie altogether.
And what of our protagonist? Well, Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, who’s spent her entire short life as a laundress. It perhaps bears mentioning that laundresses have very low wages and famously short life spans, due to the vast array of workplace injuries that could happen on the job. Throw in the workplace sexual harassment that happens on a daily basis, and Maud is only a miniscule paycheck away from being slave labor. So of course Maud gets involved with the suffragettes, and she gets increasingly involved as she loses what little she has.
The problem with Maud is that her development arc could be traced with a ruler. We know the movie’s agenda and it’s very quickly made clear that the filmmakers aren’t interested in being clever about it, so we know exactly how and where the protagonist will end up. It also doesn’t help that Mulligan doesn’t have the charisma or the screen presence to sell herself as this tough and militant woman. That just isn’t a card in her deck. No, Mulligan is much better at portraying heartache, which is probably why we get so many scenes of Maud crying over her various misfortunes. Over and over again.
Last but not least, while I can’t go into details, this movie really drops the ball when it comes to the ending. Way too many storylines are left unresolved, and the climax plays out in such a way that our protagonist didn’t even have to be there at all. Such a waste.
Suffragette isn’t a bad story, it’s just a badly told story. Through heavy-handed writing and slapdash visuals, the writer and director proved themselves unfit to tackle this source material, though heaven knows they didn’t fail for lack of sincerity or effort. Absolutely everyone involved with this picture is giving it their all, and that goes a long way toward selling the predictable plot and the paper-thin characters.
It’s a damn shame that so much of the movie is painted in broad binary colors. I wish the film had utilized more shades of grey, because that’s where you’ll find the stuff that we’re still trying to figure out a century later. But no, the filmmakers were clearly more focused on harping about how women should have a voice in government, like that isn’t already a foregone conclusion in the year 2015.
This is easily worth a rental, or maybe even a second-run. But I wouldn’t advise going out of your way for it.
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