"Suffragette" Mostly Does Justice To Powerful Subject Matter

Director Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette” ends with a postscript that matter-of-factly reminds us that women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the same crusade so fiercely depicted in her movie – is hardly a thing of the past. The women of Saudi Arabia were only just given the right to vote in August 2015, leaving Vatican City as the planet’s last bastion of male chauvinist voting laws. The aforementioned postscript speaks not only to the crusade’s eternalness, but its scope. Well before the internet or television or flight brought the world together, women all over the globe were uniting under the same banner.

It was an extraordinary undertaking; the kind of historic happening almost too expansive for a single film to tackle. But Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan wisely zero in on one woman in particular – a fictional composite character that might as well have existed – to tell the story of women’s suffrage in England in 1912, using specificity to convey the sacrifice and suffering suffragettes have endured through three centuries.

Carey Mulligan’s Maude Watts makes for a most compelling lead. As wife to Sonny (Ben Whishaw), mother to George (Adam Michael Dodd), and obedient Glasshouse Laundry employee (read: indentured servant), her transition from subservient to firebrand is a fundamentally gripping one. Her initial reluctance to shake up her entire existence is completely understandable, as is her compulsion to ultimately see said shake up through.

When an increasingly disobedient Maude is forcefully separated from her son, it’s the kind of unimaginable gut punch that would come off as manipulative in a work of straight fiction. But as historical fiction it’s absolutely crushing, setting us more thoroughly in a character’s shoes than any film this year.

But while Mulligan’s alternatively doe and steely-eyed performance is immediate and relatable, the rest of the cast has trouble measuring up. Brendan Gleeson’s villainous inspector is wafer-thin, delivering spates of antagonistic dialogue with the aplomb of a napping tortoise and eventually stumbling into a garish plot hole. Helena Bonham Carter is nearly as sleepy in her role as a prominent suffragette, and Meryl Streep gets but a cameo as movement icon Emmaline Pankhurst.

But Anne-Marie Duff makes an attention-grabbing turn as one of Maude’s co-workers and co-conspirators, and Mulligan is every bit as good as the film requires her to be. All the murky visuals in the world aren’t enough to dull her performance, convincingly oscillating from loving mother to letterbomb maker – sometimes within the same scene.

The multi-dimensionality with which director and writer paint Maude Watts is what makes “Suffragette” worthy of its subject matter, and Mulligan’s interpretation of her is what makes the film a success. The movie isn’t as dynamic as it could have been, but it gets to the core of what big, important social change means – and how little glory there is in ground work.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 23, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Sarah Gavron
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity)