SUFFRAGETTE Review

Suffragette is a movie that survives solely on the strength of it's true story. Beyond the compelling and often times unfathomable way that men treat women in this film, there isn't much to grab a hold of or really sink your teeth into. It's disheartening given all the film clearly has going for it, but thus is the way things seem to go when a writer makes interesting and even somewhat daring if not completely agreeable choices in their screenplay. For instance, our lead character is a fictional invention in order to convey a certain perspective on these historical events, but given the way the film comes to a swift and unexpected conclusion based on the actions of a different character whose actor didn't even make the poster the film as a whole can't help but feel slightly impromptu whereas the obvious, in my opinion, choice for the narrative direction would have been more straightforward. We are talking about an incident that concerned militant suffragette Emily Davison (played in the film by Natalie Press) that effectively serves as the climax of the film, but given we've seen Davison in less than a handful of scenes prior the impact of her actions is not nearly as gut-wrenching as they could've been. I realize that writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame) is giving audiences more of a relatable character arc by delivering the typically passive Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who is more or less pulled into her life of activism, but given that Davison was jailed on nine different occasions and had to be force fed no less than forty-nine times I'd say that not only does Davison deserve a movie about her life, but that it generally sounds more complimentary to the cinematic landscape than that of the everywoman Morgan has made with Maud. That isn't to say Mulligan or her character are ineffective as they work up to a certain point, but unfortunately that is as much as can be said about the film as well. With this subject matter and these events that clearly deserve to be recognized not to mention the talent on hand it's strange how uninspiring the film can sometimes feel. It has it's moments, sure, but for a fight that's unforgettable I likely won't remember much about the movie past next week.

Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) shares an unexpected understanding with Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).
We are introduced to Mulligan's Maud, a twenty-four year old laundress, who has worked at the same place and under the same skeevy boss since she was a young girl. Shortly after Maud witnesses a suffragette rally the women from the laundry are encouraged to speak out to Parliament and give testimony in hopes of building a case for why they deserve the right to vote. A co-worker of Maud's, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), offers to testify and given Maud is more or less intrigued by the thought of making strides she offers to accompany Violet. However, on the morning Violet is to testify she shows up having been beaten by her abusive husband. As she cannot go in front of Parliament in this state, Maud is forced to be the one who testifies. Initially hesitant, the Parliament official presents a welcoming facade that coaxes Maud's story out of her, revealing the unhealthy working conditions and lower pay that she and her fellow female co-workers are subject to versus the male employees (not to mention the advances of their boss that they can do nothing about unless they prefer to be out of work). Maud seems to be given a fresh energy and hope about obtaining the right to vote after her testimony, but when attending the announcement of Parliament's ruling that they did not in fact get the vote a riot breaks out turning the police officers on the women. The women are beaten and Maud, who gets caught up in the crowd as she tries to escape, is struck and arrested for a week along with Violet, pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Davison who it reveals is a confidant of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Outside of all of this, Maud's husband Sonny (a terrific Ben Whishaw) and son George (Adam Michael Dodd) are left to fend for themselves, something Sonny is unable to deal with given the looks he begins receiving at work and the social stigma that comes with having a wife who won't stand in line with their husband's wishes.

It is in these extraneous relationships in relation to the driving force of the plot that the film finds it's most interesting territory to explore. These caveats of Sonny and Maud and of Maud and George, not to mention the inclusion of Irish inspector Steed (the always reliable Brendan Gleeson) are where the film finds it's groove. Steed develops something of a relationship with Maud that sees the two consoling in one another their hopes and desperation's while somehow managing to keep the exchanges strictly professional. Steed offers that he may be sympathetic to Maud and the Women's Social and Political Union's (WSPU) plight as a whole, but that he has been tasked with a job to do and finds his current place in the hierarchy of society comfortable enough that it's not worth risking. It is in these scenes where Gleeson and Mulligan go back and forth about the choices in what is right and what is easy that really begin to convey the passion behind the need to act violently. "War is the only language men understand," is a line spoke multiple times by the suffragette women. While these intermittent interactions with Steed give the overarching objective more heft it is the dynamic between Maud and her son that brings in the emotional weight. It is in these two aspects that we find the only real places the film gives us closure as well, given the understanding that is rendered between Steed and Maude and the emotionally devastating final scene between Maud and George. I won't go into spoiler territory with what happens as a result of Maud's commitment to her new found cause, but it is a moment that takes us to a peak realization of what such an involvement in a cause like women's rights could cost a person at the time and instead of harboring this momentum the third act that follows is more a deflation of energy that ends just as the charge really feels as if it's beginning to pick up.

Maud and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) infiltrate the Epsom Derby to make their cause known.
What's worse is the film's tendency to ignore the other areas in which it seemingly has a large amount of opportunity to flourish. We are treated to multiple scenes with Carter's Edith Ellyn where she teaches her fellow suffragette's how to defend themselves or how to make a bomb, but despite the fact she and her husband, Hugh (Finbar Lynch), have an advanced and understood relationship for this point in time we never feel the pull of the clear bombasity this character should possess. Whether this is due to Carter playing it too subtly or there simply not being enough on the page there is clearly something missing here. Even Streep, who's presence is being marketed as a major player, is only present for a single scene which amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. The dynamic between Maud and Sonny is also one that feels underdeveloped. We are quickly given their traditional setting and rather impoverished lifestyle, but more interesting is the structure by which Sonny seems to be raising young George and the looks of concern that Maud gives him even before she becomes wrapped up with the suffragette fight. There is a tension between the two that lays flaccid because of Maud's instinct to stay quite. When she finally decides to display some initiative Sonny is nothing short of bewildered. Unfortunately, this dynamic is on display less than Davison. To that effect, the pacing is all sorts of off, but again this feels due largely to the script not knowing how to divide up its several characters and their individual narratives much less knowing how to bring them together. Director Sarah Gavron has made something of a kind of intentionally ugly film so as to display just how ugly society was at that point in time. Even Alexandre Desplat's score feels stale and recycled (hints of last year's Imitation Game soundtrack are abnormally apparent). Nothing glistens, nothing shines-as if to show just how little hope there was-how dim the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be sometimes-too bad the experience of watching this film feels the same way.