Suffragette packs a punch. It’s a soldiering tribute to the women who fought for the right to vote and paved the way for the feminist movement in the UK. While the script might be a little too biopic friendly, it’s still a rousing film full of outstanding performances. Director Sarah Gavron wisely frames the conflict through the eyes of Maud (Carey Mulligan), and she keeps the drama at an intimate level, all while hinting at the larger scope of the movement nationwide.
Instead of going big, Suffragette puts us in the shoes of Maud Watts, an outsider to the movement, who works as a launderer. What I really liked about the film is that you hear murmurs about this group led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and their activities throughout the first half of the film. They are sort of portrayed as a small-scale movement that won’t cause much damage, but when Maud decides to get involved and get active, we see firsthand how powerful the group is. Obviously with a film like this many know the story already, yet Gavron and writer Abi Morgan literally put you in Maud’s shoes as she gets deeper into the action, with protests and bombings aplenty.
Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Maud. Her best performance since An Education, Mulligan is pitch perfect for the role. She’s such a natural actor that practically everything she feels, you feel alongside her. Gavron favors close-ups of the women in these harsh work conditions, and it works at getting underneath their skin and bringing the raw emotion to life. Other suffragettes Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and Emily (Natalie Press) make quite an impact too. It isn’t exactly an ensemble cast – Mulligan carries most of the film’s weight – but it’s nice having supporting characters that make a lot of background noise and are actually memorable characters rather than props. Unfortunately Meryl Streep doesn’t have that same luxury. Her character is portrayed as a god-like being, and while this might have been true for the suffragettes, she is only present in the film for less than five minutes and doesn’t make a lasting impression on the audience.
The script is marvelous at bringing to life early 20th century London, and the production design is gorgeous. The murky city breathes deep, as the dark alleys where these women plot their attacks is paralleled with the brighter scenes of the lawmakers in Parliament. The film on the whole has a feeling of a pot on a burner, ready to boil over any minute. It’s a testament to the writing and direction that can convey a sense of natural urgency driven by history. Additionally a beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat (my favorite composer) accompanies the action and keeps the lows low and the highs high.
The brilliant script works at showing how Maud and the activists practiced civil disobedience and “unladylike” tactics while facing oppression from both home and the government. It does grow a bit tiresome towards the end, however, and the finale doesn’t quite have the impact that it might have expected. There are many moments that could be considered climactic, and the one chosen is brilliant, but the falling action leads to a poor final few minutes. Of course it ends with typical true story text and a list of countries when women gained the right to vote (which is genius), but the ending could’ve been a little more out-of-the-box than what we got. Another coat of polish could’ve elevated Suffragette from a striking biopic to something in a league of its own. Regardless, Suffragette falls under the category of “essential viewing,” and it manages to be both entertaining and important. Nailing that balance for films like this is key, and Suffragette brings a wallop.