Looking into one important feminist movement during the early 20th century, “Suffragette” tries to show and tell us a story of brave women who fought hard for social equality for them and many other women in their conservative society. Considering its historical subject which remains relevant even at present, the movie may deserve some attention, but it is unfortunately hampered by weak storytelling and thin characterization, and we merely observe the history facts reflected in the film rather than being involved in the story itself.
Through its ordinary fictional heroine who comes across an accidental chance of social enlightenment, the movie looks into the middle of the British suffragette movement during 1912. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a young married woman who has worked in a laundry factory for many years since she was a child, and we see the grueling working environment she and other female employees have to endure everyday. Besides frequently exposed to occupational hazards, they are paid far less than male employees including Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) even though they work as hard as men, but they cannot complain about this unfair discrimination mainly because of their poor social status as well as the prevalent social prejudice on women during their period. As reflected by an arrogant male statement during the opening sequence, women in Britain during that time were denied of many basic social rights just because they were believed to be inferior to men, and they did not even have the right to vote, which was the main aim of the British Suffragette movement.
When she is doing an extra delivery job on one day, Maud encounters the latest commotion by a group of suffragettes including her co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). she does not want to get involved with them at first, but, as becoming more conscious of how much she and other female employees are mistreated by their mean, inconsiderate male boss, she comes to spend more time with Violet and other suffragettes including Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), and she even finds herself in the middle of an important public moment when she must rise to the occasion as the last-minute representative of her factory female workers.
Of course, this gradual change of hers is not welcomed much by Sonny and her neighbors, and her relationship with Sonny naturally becomes strained as she gets more involved in the suffragette movement. Furthermore, she is soon included on the watchlist of Detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who has been constantly monitoring the suffragettes operating in London and patiently searching for Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), a real-life activist and leader of the British Suffragette movement.
The movie works best when it focuses on the limits and prejudices its suffragette characters face during their hard fights. When it looks like new Prime Minster David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) is willing to listen to them, they get some hope and expectation from that, but they are rejected again in the end, and then they get brutally suppressed by the police when they begin to protest. As trying to deal with the personal cost resulted from her choices, Maud becomes more determined than before, and she does not hesitate at all when the suffragette movement enters a more radical mode.
Carey Mulligan is well-cast as a woman who comes to find her own inner strength as opening her eyes to the social injustice surrounding her and other many women, but the screenplay by Abi Morgan, who previously wrote the screenplay for “The Iron Lady” (2011), does not support well Mulligan’s good efforts. The movie is clumsy and artificial when it tries to depict its heroine’s eventual growth as an active suffragette, and her drama somehow seems to be at the fringe of a bigger and more interesting story out there although she is supposedly the center of the story. This flawed aspect is particularly evident during one sequence based on a tragic real-life incident which was a major turning point for the British suffragette movement, and the movie stumbles and fizzles even at that point with little dramatic effect.
The supporting performers in the film do not have many things to do, but they try their best as filling their mostly underdeveloped roles. While Anne-Marie Duff, who gave a fabulous supporting performance in “Nowhere Boy” (2009), brings weary determination to her character, Helena Bonham Carter is engaging as usual, and it is a shame that the movie does not delve that deep into Ellyn’s long relationship with her husband, a quiet decent man willing to support his wife’s cause. Romola Garai, who held her own place between Saoirse Ronan and Vanessa Redgrave in “Atonement” (2007), is sadly underutilized like Ben Whishaw, and the same thing can be said about Meryl Streep, who only appears for a few minutes during one scene.
The best supporting performance in the movie is from Brendan Gleeson, who presents his character as a compassionate and principled guy who simply does not approve of what suffragettes are doing in the name of their belief. Yes, those activists really destroyed mailboxes and cut off telephone lines for making their defiant voices heard more widely in public, and these deeds were indeed regarded as serious criminal acts by many people during that time. Gleeson has a good scene when his character sincerely tries to convince Maud to do a right thing in his view, and that scene is another nice example of what this dependable Irish actor can do with a colorless role given to him.
I cannot wholeheartedly recommend “Suffragette”, but maybe you should watch it just for enlightening yourself a bit on how much women fought for equal social rights many of us take for granted – and reminding yourself of how much women are still struggling with discrimination and oppression even at present. I do not deny good intentions behind the movie, but I just cannot help but wish that it were something more than a passable social history lesson.