Laden with the gloss of prestige from start to finish, Suffragette can’t seem to get out of its own way in order to tell a compelling story. The issue at hand is important, even essential in our current time, but the man in which the struggle for women to gain the right to vote is told will leave you yawning more likely than applauding. Director Sarah Gavron has an eye for period detail, but the screenplay by Abi Morgan leaves a lot to be desired. There’s just not quite enough for the talented cast, led by Carey Mulligan, to do here, which seems illogical considering the material, yet here we are. Somehow, Suffragette manages to be boring, and that’s an unforgivable sin in my book. The actual right at stake here in the film is given far too little intention, with the crux of the story just being a generic period story about advocates/protestors fighting the State as both get more and more aggressive in their attempts to bring down the other. Mulligan is very good, I’ll concede that, and again, the look of the movie is rather effective, but it’s not nearly enough. The flick wants to be an Oscar contender in the worst way, but it’s far from that level. Suffragette just isn’t up to snuff for that sort of thing, plain and simple. It doesn’t lack for sincerity, but it does lack for quality.
Set in early 20th century London, the plot centers around the plight of British women seeking the right to vote. These early foot soldiers in the women’s right movement were treated almost like real soldiers, subject to harsh punishment and brutality. Protagonist Maud Watts (Mulligan) is a wife and mother who initially doesn’t plan on being part of the movement and just focuses on her work at a laundry, but is secretly and slowly drawn into the suffragette movement by the likes of Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) as well as co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). They’re all inspired by fugitive leader of the movement Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), but they have to move underground when the state begins cracking down, led by Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who is mostly sympathetic to their cause but still hunts them down when they’re “out of order”. When Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) takes issue with her crusade and does something harsh, she becomes even more radicalized. We all know where this crusade ends, but the tragedy here is how dull it’s all made to seem.
There’s some solid acting to showcase here, but to some degree it’s all for nothing. Regardless, it’s easy to praise Carey Mulligan for her headlining performance in Suffragette. She’s emotional but never over the top, really being an audience surrogate at the outset. You believe in Mulligan’s slow radicalization, so she achieves what the screenplay can not. It’s not quite awards worthy like some have claimed, but she’s definitely the highlight. Let’s get Meryl Streep out of the way next though, as she’s basically just cameoing. She’s fine, but Streep is barely in this, be clear on that. Hopefully that will put a stop to Oscar talk for her in this role, as it’s nonsense to me. I did also like Helena Bonham Carter though, who is the spark plug here that Mulligan’s character isn’t. The likes of Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Whishaw are solid too in supporting roles, but none of them blew me away. Also on hand here are the likes of Adam Michael Dodd, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, and more. The one to really praise here though is Mulligan.
I hate to be dismissive, but I really wish that someone other than Sarah Gavron had directed this and someone other than Abi Morgan had written it. Gavron brings no personality to Suffragette, while Morgan’s script is just as dull. I’m not too familiar with Gavron’s prior work, but Morgan has been uneven at best to me, really only previously impressing with Shame. That being said, there’s great production value on display, so credit to DP Eduard Grau for capturing it. There’s also a solid score from Alexandre Desplat, but in no way is that enough for a recommendation. It’s just far too workmanlike overall, despite occasional flourishes. Mostly though, it just plods along, poorly paced and rarely capturing your interest. When the closing cards talking about when certain countries gave women the right to vote are more compelling than the previous hour and 45 minutes or so of entertainment, you know something is wrong.
In the end, Suffragette is a mediocre historical drama that wastes the opportunity to capture the battle for the right of women to vote in any meaningful way. Mulligan is rather good, but that’s just one plus among a majority of minuses. A would be Oscar player, this still might dupe voters into voting for it, but I just don’t see what any of the fuss would be about. Among the 2015 awards contenders, this is among the most disappointing so far. Suffragette is not required viewing, plain and simple, and that’s a shame…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!