Many biopics and historical features focus on the movers and shakers of social and cultural movements. Audiences are witnesses to great acts of selflessness during times of war, groundbreaking artistic brilliance, or a terrific struggle to overcome injustice. “Suffragette” attempts to show us an alternate perspective, that of a newcomer to a political movement, someone who is a participant but not the hero.
This storytelling works well to show us the scope of the suffragette movement, the context, and realities from which it developed. In the opening scenes of the film, we see women and men working in a crowded industrial laundry facility, with steam and heavy machinery. It’s early twentieth-century London, and this is the reality of the working class: long days, child labor, and dangerous conditions. It’s a dirty reality, all grays, dark blues, and browns, with people living in close quarters and mud in the streets.
Carey Mulligan is our every-woman window into the suffragette movement as Maud Watts. Mulligan does a good job with what she has to work with, but ultimately Maud’s exposure to the suffragette movement feels a little too contrived to believe. Maud is initially uninterested in participating, and only does so because she is in the right place at the right time more than once. And once she does embrace the cause, it seems it is because she feels she has nothing else left in her life.
“Suffragette” excels when it becomes a portrait of family life in early twentieth-century London, rather than a coming-of-suffragette story. It’s hard for us to imagine a time or place when someone could be born at his or her place of work (Maud was born at the laundry). We see Maud and her husband, played by Ben Whishaw, and their little boy crowded into their small flat after they both work a long day at the laundry, a picture of King George on the mantel, and the only wall separating rooms in the flat a hanging sheet.
Within this context of working-class everyday life, the story unfolds to show that the disenfranchisement of women is a symptom of something much larger and sinister, pervasive and institutionalized misogyny. When Maud witnesses the beginning of the sexual assault of a young laundry worker, and when her husband exercises his legal right to determine the fate of their family, she has no legal or socially sanctioned recourse. These moments feel less contrived because they fit within the picture of working-class life the filmmakers have painted.
Maud’s character also realizes this, and it is then she embraces the movement, use of violence and all. She asks her husband what kind of life their daughter would have had, if they had had a daughter. When he answers that it would have been like Maud’s life that is unacceptable. The cause has become personal. Having a vote becomes more than just an intellectual right, but something that deeply affects the most private and personal moments of one’s life.
However, the filmmakers seem to have become so interested in plotting Maud’s journey of witness to active suffragette that they forgot about the rest of the characters. Talents such as Helena Bonham-Carter, Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson have little to work with in terms of depth. All play integral parts to the plot, and Gleeson develops Inspector Steed as well as he can. But Whishaw never gets to transcend the role of unhappy husband, Bonham-Carter the role of the wise and experienced suffragette. The inclusion of Meryl Streep as the legendary suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst further exposes weaknesses in the script, including a character to help push the plot forward.
The film does have some good performances. Anne-Marie Duff is excellent as Violet Miller, a fellow laundry worker who essentially recruits an unwilling Maud. For her, suffrage is fundamental. She has worked in the laundry her whole life, her young daughter is now working there, she has several children and an alcoholic husband who beats her. Yet somehow Duff brings nuance to this character, with a surprising sense of humor.
Likewise, Mulligan brings extra depth to Maud. In her scenes with Gleeson, we get a glimpse of two actors ready to push the boundaries of their script. Mulligan reminds us who the suffragettes were when as Maud she goofs around to make her son laugh; they were working women with families, lives, and losses who were willing to make great sacrifices to ensure the women in coming generations wouldn’t have to. “Suffragette” is an enjoyable, but not outstanding, movie about a vitally important part of our history.
“Suffragette” is playing nationwide.
Images provided by Focus Features