Suffragette takes a complex political movement and distills it into a single avatar. That is its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. Stretches of the film are involving, and screenwriter Abi Morgan uncannily puts us in the mindset of her heroine. But Morgan’s screenplay also adheres to a strict formula, which favors broad melodrama instead of a broader historical context. Director Sarah Gavron stubbornly keeps the action from one character’s point of view, so some sequences are clunky when they should feel intense. While Suffragette is not always a success, it can be a powerful reminder of the sacrifices everyday people must make in order for their movements to gain traction.
It is 1912 in London, and the suffragettes now resort to civil disobedience to get their point across. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is reluctant to join their ranks: she is a young, working-class mother who’s happy for her job at a laundry. She raises her son with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), who also works at the laundry, except he cannot see the inequities Maud and her female colleagues must face. Maud strikes up friendship with Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), an unabashed suffragette, and becomes a face for the movement when she unexpectedly testifies before parliament. She attracts the attention of Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a policeman who’s actively trying to undermine the suffragettes. The systemic attack of the movement ultimately radicalizes Maud, who is then ostracized by her family and community. Left with no recourse, her tactics grow bolder and more dangerous.
Parts of Suffragette unfold like a thriller. In order to get the vote, the suffragettes essentially resort to guerrilla tactics. There is a sequence where Maud’s leader Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) has the women blow up mailboxes, and it follows with the infectious thrill of disruption. Still, Morgan and Gavron must keep things from Maud’s point of view, so we understand every choice and struggle she undergoes. At first, Maud is content with the status quo, and her transition to a radical is the soul of the film. The point is that Maud represents thousands of English women, all of whom endured awful conditions, and that things got worse before they got better. By serving as a representation, Maud’s story tugs at the heartstrings more than it strives for verisimilitude. Some scenes are maudlin, even cloying, since there is little need for Morgan to find nuance.
Morgan and Gavron’s unwavering subjectivity means there are few historical details. The genuine historical figures, such as Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst, amount to little more than catalysts for Maud to change her mind (Streep is in the film for three minutes, tops, which is just enough time for Pankhurst’s infamous quote to fall flat). Instead, Suffragette follows Maud’s family life, Maud’s stints in prison, and Maud’s emboldened desire for the female vote. The cyclical story has a point – it shows how how her thinking evolves – except it also has the unintended consequence of growing tedious.
Unsurprisingly, the character moments in between the episodic structure are the best part. Steed is a realist, and there’s a blunt honesty in his infrequent conversations with Maud. Bonham Carter, on the other hand, plays Edith with more pluck than resolve (her character’s husband has a terrific minor role as the sort of man who understands what it means to be true ally and husband). Through it all is Mulligan, who takes an inexact character and gives her dimension, anyway. If anything, Gavron’s clumsy direction fails the performances. There are several chaotic sequences, such as when a peaceful gathering turns violent, and Gavron films a mess of batons and violence so that we are unsure what we are seeing. There is little visual clarity to Suffragette, and with few establishing shots, parts of it feel downright claustrophobic.
In the early twentieth century, “suffragette” was a four-letter word. In the public eye, it meant a dangerous point of view, and a shift away from conformity. Maud avoids the word at first, as if she’s afraid it will taint her. By the end of the film, she is proud of the label; men say the word with disdain, which only empowers her resolve. It is ironic, then, that the film’s most recognizable actor now avoids the label “feminist.” Part of the point of Suffragette is that words matter, and that collective action needs a name in order for it to stick. The film is mostly a fiction, yet it is instructive about today’s political battles (there is a strong connection between the climax and the tactics of Black Lives Matter). Since this film puts us into the mindset of an ordinary woman, it is then worth remembering that today’s political activists come from somewhere, too, and make sacrifices we dare not imagine.