Movie Review: Suffragette

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A young working woman at the turn of the century gets caught up in the militant suffragette movement.

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Sarah Gavron, 2015

Laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has worked hard every day of her life since she was a child. She and her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) have one son, and Maud has been struggling with her desire to have more children. One day Maud comes across her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) breaking windows in protest for votes for women. Intrigued, Maud becomes closer to Violet, testifying to parliament about their life as workers when Violet can’t. Maud becomes increasingly involved in the movement, becoming close to militant pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and listening to a speech by movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). As Maud becomes more distant from her husband, who doesn’t understand her devotion to the cause, she becomes more and more violent and defiant, going to jail and standing up to police officer Steed (Brendan Gleason).

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Suffragette is a film that wants to be everything to all people and winds up not really saying anything. All of the characters are simplified versions of real women whose struggles for acknowledgement under the law paved the way for women of the future. Maud is a fictional person, an average white everylady inserted into some of the major moments of the suffragette movement. As such, her introduction to the suffragettes maker her the audience surrogate, and she stumbles into the movement as much by accident as by choice. The women all represent the different classes and statuses of women at the time (there’s an upper class woman whose voice is heard more but whose money is controlled by her husband, a childless woman who uses her husband’s qualification in order to work, a lower class woman with a physically abusive husband who keeps pumping out the babies). The acting from most of these actors is top-notch, anchored by Carey Mulligan in the lead, and that’s what keeps the movie moving along. It’s easy to get invested in Maud, particularly thanks to the strengths of the family scenes. Ben Whishaw provides good support as her conservative husband, and her bond with her son is powerful. There’s a message of sisterhood that falls apart somewhat as the movie progresses.

Suffragette really struggles with pacing problems: largely, the fact that it doesn’t have an ending. Just when we want to know what happened to Maud, we get nothing; no closure, just a version of an important historic event that only people who already knew a lot about the suffragette movement would have known the film was building up to. After spoon-feeding us every bit of information and every character trope under the sun, the film fails to build up the character who is crucial to the ending. The fact that the movie overlooks women of colour who were involved in the suffragette movement is also incredibly depressing. Given the importance of the film’s subject, there are definitely some great moments: Maud giving her testimony and her feelings of disappointment and betrayal when she feels like she hasn’t been heard are excellent. The movie wants to be a call to action, it just doesn’t seem sure about what action that should be.

Suffragette on IMDb

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