Although women’s rights—from equal pay to reproductive health—remain hot-button issues in modern-day America, especially during this presidential election cycle, it’s still hard to fathom that women did not win the right to vote in the U.S. until 1920. Even more staggering, in Saudi Arabia, women will be allowed to vote for the first time this December. So a film that spotlights women’s fight for the vote is as salient—and required—as ever, for all of us. Enter Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, which zeroes in on a group of British women in early 20th century England: While the film adequately captures the history and politics of the era, the movement’s revolutionary passion is tempered by too many formulaic contrivances.
Carey Mulligan, outstanding earlier this year as Thomas Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene in the Thomas Vinterberg-helmed Far from the Madding Crowd, takes on another headstrong, though less complex, character in Suffragette. Mulligan’s Maud is a young wife and mother who dutifully labors away at an oppressive London laundry. Although she and the other women employed at the facility are subjected to as many unsafe working conditions as the men, including her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), they make far less than their male counterparts. Younger, more attractive women at the laundry also have to endure the sexual advances and assaults by factory manager Mr. Taylor (Geoff Bell).
Maud is accidentally caught in the middle of a suffragette window-smashing protest and recognizes one of her co-workers Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) as an instigator. By 1912, the English suffragette movement had moved away from more than a half-century of passive and peaceful campaigning, which wasn’t taken seriously by lawmakers, to more aggressive forms of civil unrest. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, encouraged “deeds not words,” and the destruction of property was fair game. WSPU used the publicity to capture public and government attention to further the “votes for women” cause. And in Suffragette, Maud finds herself at the forefront of the cause.
Still, reluctant to get involved directly in the women’s movement, Maud agrees to accompany Violet to Parliament, where her new friend is scheduled to testify before the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), who is considering a women’s voting-rights bill amendment. In an unsurprising twist, Maud takes Violet’s place at Parliament, telling the lawmakers about her life: She is an orphan who’s worked at Bethnal Green laundry since childhood—it’s all very Dickensian. Maud’s testimony puts her on the radar of police inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), and at odds with Sonny at home.
Through Violet, Maud meets a group of forward-thinking, revolutionary women, among them: Pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and upper-class Alice Haughton (Romola Garai). The two coordinate the WSPU’s London activities since Pankhurst has been forced into hiding. Ellyn’s pharmacy, which she runs with her supportive husband (Finbar Lynch), serves as a meeting and hiding place for suffragettes. When the prime minister rejects Lloyd George’s amendment, Maud is indignant. She steels her resolve: With her political awakening blossoming, in no short order she is arrested, imprisoned, force fed and shunned by her neighbors, co-workers and husband.
Maud is a composite of many women, the character obviously meant to nobly represent the many nameless faces of the working class women in the suffragette movement. Her ordeals and hardships are theirs—and therein lies the problem. Despite the extreme suffering that she must endure—practically to the point of cliché in Abi Morgan’s script—Maud’s everywoman is so much less interesting than many of the real life heroines who surround her.
Suffragette unfortunately relegates characters based on real women to the sidelines, most notably Pankhurst, a key player in the movement and talked about by the other characters with reverence. Despite the heavy marketing of Meryl Streep, who plays the WSPU founder, the character has about five minutes of screen time in which she gives an impassioned speech at a rally. The other character who gets the short shrift until the very end of the film is the real-life suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), whose numerous jailings, force feedings and possibly self-sacrificing death at the 1913 Epsom Derby made international headlines.
Director Gavron does a respectable job in capturing the political and social atmosphere of the era, though her gauzy filter can be a little too on the nose to evoke the past. Costume designer Jane Petrie and her team have accomplished something exceptional in seeking out original, 100-year-old garments for the actors, when possible. And, in spite of the flaws found in Suffragette’s predictable plot, the ensemble’s acting elevates the material, most notably through the performances of Mulligan and Bonham Carter. Mulligan silently conveys Maud’s hesitation to fully committing to the suffragettes through furtive looks and subtle expressions, while Bonham Carter’s Edith crackles on screen with the energy of zealot.
Suffragette, which was written by, directed by and starring women, highlights how far—or not—equal rights issues have come in the last century, and it often struggles with shouldering that inherent mantle of responsibility. In carefully trying to honor the work of the countless young women, the “foot soldiers” in the battle for the British vote, Suffragette focuses too much on earning audience sympathy for a fictitious character that’s much less engaging than the real counterparts who inspire her.
Director: Sarah Gavron
Writer: Abi Morgan
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, Meryl Streep
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.