Directed by Sarah Gavron
Written by Abi Morgan
United Kingdom, 2015
Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) directs the story of the British suffragette movement from the ground up. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a poor, working-class woman who has labored all her life for men at work and home. She toils for the survival of her family- a doting husband (Ben Whishaw of Bright Star and I’m Not There) and a small son. She is largely quiet and keeps to herself until she encounters first-hand the disruptive influence of the suffragists in public and at the linen factory where she strains to make a living. Maud transforms from passive observer to impassioned reactionary through a gradually enlightened understanding of systemic oppression. Lacking any financial or political power to force change as an individual, she joins the suffragists to raise awareness about the abuse and inequality that women face. She has everything to risk- family, health and safety- but soon holds the larger goal of a better quality of life for womankind in the highest regard. Passionately written and soundly acted, it is a film that is profoundly significant in how it reclaims history for those who have long been written out of it. With such far-reaching sentiment and events to cover, Suffragette sensitively dips its toes in the waters of the movement, but falls just short of encapsulating the momentous extent of these women’s complex experiences while fighting for the basic rights for one half of humanity.
There is a definite power in Suffragette relaying the hidden stories of the quasi-violent uprising of women refusing to tolerate their continued subjugation under the law. Even the briefest synopsis of events reveals the complete regulation of women’s bodies and minds. To express themselves outside of the approval of the men who held their lives in their hands was to defy every societal convention of how a woman was supposed to conduct herself. Oppressed in every sense of the word, a person like Maud could be cast off from everything she knew and flung into the poverty stricken fringes of civilization. This story is not from the perspective of a woman with a title, money, or prestige on her side (many movers and shakers in the movement had privilege), but seen through the eyes of someone who was forsaken from birth as a means of menial labor and care-giving. Always taken for granted and not knowing the extent of her worth, Maud’s rise to action is the strong backbone of Suffragette. It’s a film that’s at its best when we know what she’s thinking.
As simply an ordinary women whose good nature and love for her family shines through, it’s this goodness that leads her to rebel. Her trespasses against men’s ability to rule her life come across as sincere and urgently relevant in each passing moment, as she is stripped from the little foothold she has acquired in her limited world. That she is just someone whose support helps win a modicum more progress without being an outlandish caricature is appreciated, even if we have seen Mulligan do more with rougher material.
With Streep attached, the profile of this film has no doubt been given a healthy boost in public prominence and placement in theaters. Having taken years and years to get made independently, it is a hard won victory for its female director, writer and stars. Meryl Streep’s appearance is astoundingly brief, and sure to miff some theatergoers thinking that she’s around for long at all. Streep is elegantly articulate and lends a good share of legitimacy to the proceedings, but it is the side character of Emily Wilding Davison that gives the film a stirring emotional punch that elevates comprehension of the suffragists’ crisis of conscience without being heavy-handed or self-congratulatory.
Writer Abi Morgan boasts an impressive resume which includes the provocative, aforementioned Shame and The Invisible Woman. Her writing is brilliant when focused on intimate interactions. Heart-rending scenes between Maud and her narrow-minded husband play out realistically brutal in terms of how economic negotiations between men and women of the time must have transpired. Without language to clearly express the dignity in taking up a fight that would give millions a voice for their own well-being, arguments between the closest of couples would have failed on the most fundamental of levels. Mulligan’s abrasive encounters with the austere Brendan Gleeson, an agent entrusted with enforcing Her Majesty’s laws, are curt and believably devoid of empathy on his part. Still, there is a sense that the film doesn’t go far enough in showing the torture of the suffragists and the abuse that most women had to endure on a daily basis. That kind of wallowing might have felt like exploitation, but the compressed version of what they endure feels like the material has been watered down. So when we hear the steely determination in Mulligan’s confrontations with Gleeson, there is a slight let-down that the audience has only seen a tamed and abridged version of what she and her radical compatriots have been through.
Like many films that delve into multi-faceted aspects of history or novels, the material here perhaps would have made a more complex television miniseries that could have been able to adequately flesh out the severity of the women’s’ working conditions and take a closer look at individual contributions to the cause. Instead we are left with slight inferences that hint at the edge of true suffering. Momentary samples of the adversity at hand include: a child laborer preyed upon at work, a wife beaten by her husband for acting out of turn, and the glimpsed impunity of police officers to do whatever possible to keep unruly women under the thumb of the law. Suffragette does well with its condensed timeframe, but brushes the surface of what it aims to articulate about the immense sacrifice that took place. Suffragette is a deeply affecting albeit incomplete profile of slowly gained empowerment that goes to great lengths in its final frames to remind us that the battle for women’s equality around the world is far from over. It is an achievement curtailed by the undertaking of its breadth being limited to such a short allotment of time for its expression.