starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Meryl Streep
screenplay by Abi Morgan
directed by Sarah Gavron
by Walter Chaw Focus on two scenes. The first, the pivotal moment where evil police inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson) begs his superintendent for mercy for the brave ladies arrested while violently protesting their lack of the vote. The second, a reflective moment in which audience surrogate Maud (Carrie Mulligan), a fictionalized composite character like Charlie Sheen's in Platoon, reads a poignant book by poignant candlelight. (Seriously, she looks like a Hallmark commercial--it's really awesome.) Steed delivers his spittle-flecked, earnest-member-of-the-ruling-majority-finding-humanity-in-the-struggle-of-the-martyred-heroes speech, whereupon director Sarah Gavron, following up Brick Lane and Village at the End of the World with another IMPORTANT film, shoots a standard long shot down the middle of a stairwell. It doesn't aid the scene. It doesn't even make much sense in the context of the scene. There's no reason to establish their place in that space; there's nothing to be said about the symbolism, as both inspector and superintendent appear to be on a middle-floor level. In fact you can barely see them. It's just a pretty shot. A pretty standard shot. It shows up in a lot of student films and student-photographer portfolios. And when Maud reads a book given her by one of the real leaders of England's suffrage movement by flickering flame in an abandoned church? It's pretty thick, isn't it? Here's the clincher: the way she's sitting and holding the book, the candle is casting no illumination on the pages--but lights her up just perfectly, like a little golden angel. This is exploitation, isn't it?
Gavron is guilty of a couple of things here. She's guilty of being a boring and relatively unimaginative filmmaker. And she's guilty of using stock shots and strategies to lend pathos to a scenario that doesn't need her help. In the suspect pursuit of that, her screenwriter Abi Morgan--who did fantastic work on Steve McQueen's Shame--creates a character in Maud who functions a little like a distaff Job, set upon by the plagues of the world in an attempt, again, to lend pathos to a situation that's already wrought with it. Why they would choose to tell this story as a girl-Oliver Twist thing is beyond me. The danger, and I think it happens with Suffragette repeatedly, is that telling this ridiculous, Lifetime/Harlequin pap story in place of the far more compelling stories at its periphery runs the risk of Titanic-izing history in the clumsiest of ways. Maud works in an industrial cleaners. Early shots show rows of women slaving away over vats of hot chemicals, tending to blistered feet, and suffering the cruel ministrations of overseer Taylor (Geoff Bell). One evening Maud, on her way to perform some menial and humiliating task, witnesses a bunch of women terrorists throwing rocks through windows. She begins to experience an awakening.
There's a strip of the old Johnny Hart comic "B.C." where two cavegirls (think 10,000 BC in comic-strip form) walk by a caveman with a picket demanding "Women's Suffrage Now!" The caveman looks at them and says, "So suffer." Suffragette literalizes this bad joke. Maud goes to prison, looks adorably sad, loses her Dickensian urchin of a child to some kind of adoption, loses her husband to his shame and disapproval, loses her job, loses her home, is triggered into reliving being raped by Taylor and having to watch Taylor rape a new 12-year-old girl, gets clubbed with a baton, gets force-fed, and, at the end of it all, watches real-life hero Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) throw herself in front of a horse at a racetrack and thus gain the attention of the entire world on this particular movement. In between, we also suffer another dowager cameo from Meryl Streep--moving now into the Joan Plowright phase of her career--as suffragette icon Emmeline Pankhurst. It all has the air and danger of a tea cozy. A lace one. Consider that Emily Davison suffered 46 force-feedings during her career as an enemy of the state engaged in hunger strikes. Consider that the one showcased in the film is visited upon Maud. They should've waterboarded her, too, while they were at it. Mayhaps the rack?
Here are the lessons of the picture: things were very rough for women around the time of the Industrial Revolution; and what's wrong with you that you would sit idly by while Carrie Mulligan, the pocket version of Michelle Williams, gets tortured for two solid hours? There's not one bit of subtlety in the picture--no room for ambiguity. The coppers are sociopaths, the women are victims. I like the scene where the husband of one of the movement's leaders, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), locks her in a closet to save her from herself. This just after Edith, Maud, and other women you don't really care about blow up someone's house. The interesting conversation the movie warrants has to do with the line separating a hero from a terrorist. I mean, I have a feeling that people who strap bombs to themselves to protest ruling parties think they're heroes, too. But Suffragette isn't about difficult questions, it's about creating a character to have enacted on her all the odious offenses of the early twentieth century in order to...what? In order to humanize the suffrage movement? The best question to ask is why the film isn't a biopic of Emily Wilding Davison. Were her life and sacrifice not sexy enough? Suffragette is middlebrow-massaging pabulum engineered mainly to pose Mulligan for an Oscar nomination, to make people cry in the cheapest way possible, and to make use of the Newsies set.