Nearly a century after securing the right to vote, the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain – complete with drastic displays of uncivil disobedience – gets the cinematic treatment in Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. In spite of a solid cast tackling this important part of British history, though, Suffragette rarely strays from conventional Important Issue mode.
At the center of Suffragette‘s story is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker in East London who makes her way through sweatshop working conditions while avoiding her foreman’s unwanted advances. Her home life isn’t any better. There, her husband (Ben Whishaw) takes pride in following tradition, and throws her out when she tentatively begins to look into the women’s suffrage movement in London.
Maud quickly finds herself in a movement tired of mere civil disobedience. At the urging of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud and her new friends begin conducting more violent acts, with the intention of grabbing headlines. As a result, Maud is separated from her son, thrown in jail, and frequently observed by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) who’s adherence to the law blinds him to the realities of the fight in which these women believe.
Mulligan does her best to sell the story, but Gavron and writer Abi Morgan make a mistake in placing so many problems squarely on Maud. Maud is punished at pretty much every turn, and it’s used to propel her feminist awakening, instead of the fact that she’s already a second-class citizen in her country. Worse, many of the film’s most notable acts throw Maud to the side as an observer.
Gavron and Morgan also fail to do much with the other characters. One of Maud’s mentors, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), and Steed both seem primed to break out. Ellyn pushes some of the more drastic displays, while Steed urges Maud repeatedly to be more passive in her activism. But the film inevitably reverts back to focusing on Maud.
Suffragette does have a compelling set of facts behind it, and it makes the grievances of its characters relatable. But the story isn’t told in a compelling way, and when combined with the dreary look of early 20th century London, it creates an atmosphere nowhere near as charged as the actions of suffragettes in London.