The British women who fought for voting rights in the early 20th century wouldn’t recognize the listless, passionless versions of themselves seen in “Suffragette”. Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep, there are a number of powerful actresses who could easily embody the fire burning within the women who risked all to gain the right to vote, and yet the mediocrity of the screenplay gives them all little to work with. The film certainly gives the impression of being about something important, but never captures the emotion necessary to be stirring in any way.
While there are a handful of real-life women depicted in “Suffragette”, such as lead rabble-rouser Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), the rest are purely fictional. This isn’t a big deal; the degradation and violent oppression the protesters faced is a thing of fact, and these stories surely happened to some of them. It’s just that there isn’t anything especially memorable about “Suffragette” despite its heavy tones and bleak atmosphere. This is a film so heavy on message that it forgets to tell the kind of rousing story it hopes to be.
Mulligan grimaces her way through the role of Maud, a regular, blue-collar laundress who just wants to stay out of the suffrage crossfire. And who can blame her when women are being beaten up in the streets, thrown into jail, and fired from their jobs just for demanding voting rights. It gets even worse at home as husbands have full authority over their wives, threatening to leave them destitute and alone if they join the political movement. The abuse is just as bad at work, and when Maud attends a hearing on it she’s compelled to give testimony when her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) is badly beaten. The experience sets Maud on a course to join the brick-throwing militants ready to wage war on the men keeping them from their rights to vote.
On the other side of the fight is…well, every single guy in the film. Maud’s husband (Ben Whishaw) is doomed to be a jerk the moment he first warns her not to get mixed up with the suffragettes. It only gets worse as she’s frequently arrested and interrogated by the film’s chief villain, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), whose chief job seems to be enduring a fuselage of feminist catchphrases; “We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all”! But catchphrases and slogans are all usually-reliable screenwriter Abi Morgan has to offer. Her trite, unremarkable screenplay undersells Maud’s transformation from quiet observer to someone willing to blow up houses to make her point. As the suffragettes’ tactics take on a more threatening tone, Morgan and Gavron go out of their way to keep the women sympathetic rather than allowing audiences to decide for themselves. Some of the actions taken by the suffragettes were indeed terrible and caused harm to others, but the film barely stops long enough to examine their part in the escalating violence.
Only Duff’s character Violet is depicted with any complexity but she’s also one of the few with the least screen time. That said; she more than quadruples what Meryl Streep gets as Pankhurst. Sure, Streep is plastered all over the promos but she gets literally one scene in which she delivers a hammy speech and jets off to parts-unknown. She’ll probably get an Oscar nomination for it, anyway. Mulligan would be the most deserving actress, though, as she injects far more humanity into the role of Maud than the screenplay provides. She has some terrific scenes in which she’s faced with a decision between her family and her convictions. In the film’s best moment we see a glimmer of hope in her eyes at just the thought of women gaining the right to vote, something she had never even considered to be possible.
Unfortunately, Morgan’s screenplay doesn’t connect the dots between the suffragettes’ fight and the victory they would achieve years later. It dulls the crowd-pleasing affects of an undeniably powerful and important story about the seismic social and political shifts these women sacrificed everything for.