There’s no disparaging the intent of the film Suffragette. To a large degree, the sterling motivation is spelled out by a crawl ahead of the closing credits which details when various countries across the globe first extended women the right to vote, including more than a few territories that did so only ridiculously recently. In depicting the harrowing track women had to follow to win suffrage in England, which was granted in compromised fashion in 1918 and then more in line with what was afforded men ten years later, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan strive for a echoing relevance, letting the specific movement stand in for any number of modern struggles. At least there are a few mild indicators of that intent. My relative uncertainty on this point is indicative of the chief flaw of Suffragette, the one that negative impacts every facet of the film. It’s barely about what it purports to be about.
The film builds a lot of fiction into it’s true life story, beginning with the protagonist, a haggard laundry worker named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Rather than a fully-formed character, Maud comes across as a composite meant to represent nearly every woman’s story, from passively accepting her rotten lot in life to gradual interest in the suffrage movement to eventual full-scale, militant enlightenment. Mulligan hits every beat expertly, but has no real character to play. There’s not a person there, merely a stand-in. That’s true across the board, with fine performers (Helena Bonham Carter and Brendan Gleeson among them) stuck with roles that are lacking in any discernible motivation, at least beyond delivering didactic exposition in the early going. There’s little effort to dramatize the struggle. Presenting and explaining it is simply so much easier. That approach is pervasive through the first act. After that, it’s largely a procession of imposed agony, usually built into the plot in the most manipulative fashion. There are stretches in which the indignities visited upon the women are so relentlessly severe that the film almost starts to feel like an argument against the movement, a repetitive assertion that the sacrifices were unworthy of the benefits, especially given the underlying truth that winning the vote has hardly made rampant sexism, misogyny, and ignorant intrusion on the lives of women sad relics of the past.
That absence of satisfaction in harshly earned justice can be directly traced to the film’s indifference to the value of the cause or exploring what was truly at stake. While Ava DuVernay’s great Selma is admittedly a towering standard to measure any film against, the difference in this instance is illuminating. In Selma, the sanctity of unfettered access to the voting booth is there in every scene, always present as the goal, even in those instances when the film concerns itself with other details. Suffragette seems barely interested in why it matters, taking the same quasi-indifference stand as the women on the very beginning of their journey to activism do, speculating that they wouldn’t even quite know what to do with the vote if they got it. The hollowness is only compounded by the films other flaws, from the general (an overly precious strain towards artistry in the shot construction, forgettable side characters who become absolutely instrumental) to the specific (a patently phony moment in which Gleeson’s police officer discovers a plot in a newspaper so conveniently placed the publication may as well have been called The Daily Clue, a Meryl Streep appearance that can handily serve as the official representation of “glorified cameo” from here on out). Gavron and her collaborators bungle a stirring story, transforming it into the exact opposite. Call it sadly placid.