If your childhood was anything like mine, the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word "suffragette" is the blustery Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, energetically marching around the house singing "votes for women!" In the context of that film, it's one of numerous agreeably silly caricatures of the era in which the film is set, but somehow, it remains one of the only prominent pop culture portraits of suffragettes. Precious few tales of the battle for women's suffrage have made it to the big screen - we haven't even had a proper Susan B. Anthony biopic yet. Sarah Gavron's Suffragette aims to shed light on an underexplored period of history, detailing a particularly turbulent chapter in the history of women's rights.
Maud Watts (Cary Mulligan, An Education) is a humble laundress who works long hours for a cruel, overbearing employer (Geoff Bell, Kingsman: The Secret Service). Maud is only 24, but she feels much older than that. Women in her profession are so thoroughly overworked that they usually die young. Adding insult to injury, Maud is paid considerably less than men who are tasked with doing similar work (including her husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, The Danish Girl). Maud knows that there are other women fighting for the right to vote (which could lead to better pay and more reasonable hours), but she hasn't dared to join them - she's too busy, and her spare time is devoted to her son George (Adam Michael Dodd).
Through a series of largely coincidental circumstances, Maud is asked to testify about her working conditions in front of parliament. She reluctantly accepts the task, and addresses the difficulties of her situation with polite honesty. Her words are well-received, and Maud becomes optimistic that women will be given the right to vote as a result. When the measure fails to pass, a group of suffragettes protest by attacking the police. Maud is caught up in the middle of the scuffle, and is thrown into prison for a week as a result. Once again, she attempts to distance herself from the suffragettes, but fate has other plans in store.
While Suffragette isn't always as dynamic or absorbing as it might have been (it certainly falls short of the power generated by the similarly-themed Selma), there's more than a little striking relevance in this tale of protest and social change. Maud begins as the sort of protestor everyone claims to respect - the kind who makes her arguments calmly, gently and rationally, humbly asking for change. In an ideal world, that would be enough, but the film understands that the reason such people are so broadly-liked is that they're relatively easy to ignore. When the suffragettes turn to angry rebellion - breaking windows, attacking authority figures, bombing government buildings - it's hard not to think of last year's events in Ferguson, Missouri. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."
Still, Gavron doesn't attempt to capture the full scope of the suffragette movement, instead choosing to place most of her emphasis on Maud's transformation from a lowly, beaten-down laundress to dedicated political activist. The film's strongest moments are those detailing the ever-increasing cost of Maud's dedication to her cause: the loss of her job, the loss of her freedom, the loss of her family. There's plenty of opportunity for melodrama here, but Mulligan turns in an admirably understated performance, allowing us to see much of her heartache in her sad, weary eyes.
It's a good thing Mulligan's work is so consistently engaging, because most of the other characters feel a little underdrawn. The central antagonist is Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary), who keeps a close eye on Maud's activities and spends most of his screen time doing little more than scowling. Old pros like Helena Bonham Carter (Big Fish) and Meryl Streep (Doubt) aren't given enough screen time to create fully-formed characters (despite her prominent billing, Streep's contribution to the film is a quick one-scene cameo). However, Ben Whishaw has a few good moments as Maud's unsympathetic husband.
Gavron does a nice job of connecting Suffragette to the present without making it too modern, but there are times when the film feels more intriguing on paper than it does in execution. The film's unwaveringly drab color palette and just as unwaveringly gloomy tone join forces to make the whole thing feel a little longer than it really is, and there are more than a few occasions when the film feels like boilerplate prestige picture material: strong technical virtues, important themes, talented actors, lifeless filmmaking. Even so, there are enough moments of striking relevance and emotional resonance to prevent the movie from being forgettable. There's room for a better, richer movie on this subject, but this is a decent (and long overdue) first effort.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2015