Movie Review: ‘SUFFRAGETTE’ Dramatizes An Important Topic With Scattershot Story-Telling

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James Clay // Film Critic

SUFFRAGETTE | 106 min | PG-13
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whislaw and Brendan Gleeson

A topic with such great importance deserves better material to tell its story. Sarah Avron’s SUFFRAGETTE clips the wings of the women who subjected themselves to civil disobedience and subsequent incarcerations with a grey portrayal that’s riveting in its intentions but flavorless as day-old porridge.

The story is told through the eyes of passive laundry factory worker Maude Watt (Carey Mulligan), who is forced to work a third of the hours more than her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw), and of course for 13 shillings a week to his 19. The couple by design are affable enough when taking care of their young boy George (Adam Michael Dodd), but social pressures and the onslaught of attack of social justice warriors called “Suffragettes” are causing turmoil in that department.

The movement is lead by the elusive Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), who is spoken about more than she’s seen. Streep is nearly non-existent in the film, she gets maybe 2-3 minutes of screen time. Her role has a slow burn of mythos behind it that would have been exhilarating if she made a triumphant third-act appearance.

Script writer Abi Morgan leaves the dialogue stiff and void of affection, which makes it difficult to fully connect with the Maude’s day-to-day decisions. We certainly understand how she gets pitted in the middle of fighting for her rights as a human (and a damn hard-working one at that), but the process seems more like an inevitability than an actual journey.

Center, Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Center, Carey Mulligan stars as Maude Watts. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

The most compelling presence is Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter), who is based on the real-life suffragette of the same name. She’s a (some-what) well-off physician that’s clever and has no fear of the law. She’s a formidable ally for the women, but a pesky thorn for law enforcement, which is personified in a by-the-book man named Steed (Brendan Gleeson). Bonham-Carter and Gleeson have a nice sparring of wits and are radical in their positions, making a solid B-plot fodder. However, the fact that Gleeson has to spell out why the suffragettes are a nuisance and tries to convince Maude to “be a good girl and go back to your husband” shows the on-the-nose scripting that slides in one ear and out the other.

Against the flaws of SUFFRAGETTE, it manages to cultivate tension on some levels. Witnessing a recreation of how husbands spoke to their wives and how employers sexually molested their female workers are haunting and shutter worthy. Really it shows how far we have come over the past hundred years– that type of perseverance is what carries SUFFRAGETTE, along with the visual aesthetic of the film.

Shot with a barrage of close-ups and a grey hue, cinematographer Edu Grau gets the grit of the time completely correct. What could have been a complete distraction calibrates the story astutely while the script is shaggy.

The stranglehold of patriarchal power still looms large in the world today as we just saw a few weeks back in Jennifer Lawrence’s viral essay on the wage gap. It’s undoubtedly still a relevant issue in the contemporary cultural discourse. It’s just disappointing that a movie made by women and starring some of the best working actresses tackle a large subject but couldn’t add more to the conversation.

SUFFRAGETTE open in limited release today.