Mary Poppins is probably the only other time I remember seeing a suffragette as a character in a film. Mrs. Banks had a sash and a song and it all seemed quite jolly. It is about time then that we got a decent film focussing on the struggles of the suffragettes and here’s Carey Mulligan giving it a try.
Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, Suffragette closely follows the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) as she becomes awakened by and involved in the Suffragette movement. After joining a small gang in London’s East End – we’ve all been there – she is forced to decide if she is willing to sacrifice her home, family, and job for the fight to get women the vote. Her motley crew is led by the educated Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and the group as a whole looks up to the almost mythical Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep).
Streep is featured heavily in the promotional campaign for the film but, while her presence is often teased, she only makes an appearance in one scene to deliver a rousing speech and secure a few Supporting Actress nominations. Having Streep in the role is quite apt though as the buzz of excitement around even the possibility of seeing Pankhurst speak matches that of the press scuttling off to the Suffragette press conference after the screening.
The focus of the film is not on the high-profile historical figures played by the likes of Streep and Carter but rather on Mulligan whose face is rarely out of close-up throughout the film. I couldn’t tell you much about the setting of many of the scenes but I can tell you how Carey’s face looked at any given moment. Mulligan is undoubtedly a skilled actor, giving her best East End accent, but I struggled to connect with her character emotionally. Perhaps it was something about the script; every conversation in the film related to the issue at hand leaving no real room for any characters to be developed beyond their stance on votes for women, a topic on which no grey area was allowed. I’m not saying that votes for women is a grey area just that no character was allowed to doubt their opinion in either direction. No minds were changed and no characters had arcs.
As Mulligan’s Maud got involved in the movement the film introduced various characters whose involvement and sacrifices seemed that much greater. It left me with the feeling that we had been following the wrong woman and were only seeing half the story of the suffragettes. If we were supposed to use Maud as a proxy for the audience it might have helped to turn the camera away from her face and towards what she was experiencing.
At last year’s festival I finished The Imitation Game wanting a better film to honour Alan Turing and with Suffragette I felt the same. The suffragettes deserve a better film than this to show the world what they were fighting for. From the moment the film starts the slow fades between text cards setting the scene imply a sense of importance but the story it then tells lacks the emotional connection and scope that is needed to really drive the message home.
The film is perfectly OK and might get some buzz in the short-term but I expect it to languish on ITV on a rainy Sunday afternoon in years to come.
Suffragette opens the Film Festival tonight and screens again tomorrow. Some tickets are still available online. Suffragette then opens in UK cinemas on 12 October 2015.