‘Suffragette’ Reduces a Historical Struggle Into Oscar Bait

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There are times when a historical drama can reflect the political conversation of the day, sometimes eerily so like last year’s Selma. This year, Suffragette comes out in the midst of the ongoing debate of equality for women, with topics of paid family leave and the wage gap not far from the national conversation. Sadly, Sarah Gavron’s film is a paint-by-number historical drama, one that fails to find much depth or nuance in the women’s struggle for the right to vote in England during the early 20th Century.

Suffragette follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young wife and mother who has been working in abhorrent conditions in an industrial laundry since the age of seven. One day her boss, the chauvinistic Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell), sends her to deliver a package in the heart of London and Maud witnesses Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) and other women demanding the vote throwing rocks through the windows of shops. Before long, Maud finds herself embedded in the suffragette movement, led on a local level by Edith Flynn (Helena Bonham Carter) and on a larger scale by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), whose notoriety has made her a wanted woman forced into hiding. But the actions of the women soon draw the ire of the men in power. They’re under constant surveillance by Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), which leads to a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, and release. Maud’s activism also causes her troubles at home, as her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) shuns and forbids her from seeing her son. Despite the all the compounding issues affecting them and the sacrifices required, the suffragettes continue their fight until they’re given the right to vote.

The reason Suffragette is underwhelming is the fact that the film is incredibly dry and rote in its presentation. It’s shot like most of the Oscar bait historical dramas that come out around this time of year, and is competently directed for the most part. But the script by Abi Morgan fails to do much more than make this social movement simply black and white – men bad, women good. Which isn’t to say that the film had any obligation find upstanding men in the suffragette movement (there is one in the film), but the film only pays lip service to the women that opposed the suffragettes and simply glosses over the inner turmoil of the movement itself. Overall, the film is content to further mythologize Emmeline Pankhurst, never bringing us any closer to this women’s rights icon. The same could be said for the film’s treatment Emily Davison (played by Natalie Press), whose tragic death helped bring about national attention to the suffrage movement. Yet Davison is merely a side character, one that is barely fleshed out though her tragic death is supposed to carry with it massive significance.

All of the cast of Suffragette avail themselves well. There’s not a bad performance in the film, but they’re not given much more than standard fare to work with. Carey Mulligan gives a heartfelt performance as Maud, a woman at first reluctant to join a political struggle but forges ahead despite the pain and sacrifice. The real surprising performance in the film, not that it should be, is Brendan Gleeson as the officer trying to retain the status quo through his misguided belief in the unjust set of laws. Even when playing a villain, Gleeson brings a subtle sense of humanity to his roles. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep has nothing more than a glorified cameo, which is a waste of both her talents and the extraordinary woman she’s playing.

Suffragette fails to bring its story into a larger perspective. There are no larger themes or significance to film’s proceedings as presented, nor is there the urgency or horror that was visible in last year’s Selma. The biggest deficiency of Suffragette is its inability to bring us any closer to a number of the film’s historical subjects, allowing them to mythical window dressing in a film that is rather generic Oscar bait. This is the kind of film that appeals to the crowd that ate up The King’s Speech, a rather inoffensive little historical drama that does nothing special with its story. As it stands, the best portrait of feminism on screen this year is still Mad Max: Fury Road, which approaches women’s struggles against a chauvinistic society in a much more captivating and cinematic light. It wouldn’t be shocking if Suffragette garners a few awards nominations for acting and costumes, but the film characterizes an intense struggle in the broadest of strokes, removing any larger context to the struggle in the hopes of a few shiny statues at the end of awards season.

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