Suffragette is a movie with its heart in the right place, but it’s also not a very good one. It’s so obsessed with the themes and issues at hand that it fails to take care of the movie’s moment-to-moment storytelling and that, in the end, is a failure it doesn’t recover from.
Directed by BAFTA Award winner Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, This Little Life) from a screenplay by Primetime Emmy Award winner Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady), Suffragette is set in early 20th Century London, as it follows a young woman named Maud Watts (Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan; An Education, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) as she becomes more and more involved with the campaign to give women the right to vote. Her efforts find her increasingly at odds with the male management of the laundry service she works at but more devastatingly with her husband (BAFTA Award winner Ben Wishaw; Cloud Atlas, Spectre), a misogynistic man who firmly believes that her place is as his wife and nothing more.
Suffragette has a keen grasp on the chauvinistic reality of the time, and its most successful element is its depiction of the horrifying ways in which women were treated. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the heroines of the picture, even through their escalation into more destructive forms of protest and the detailed manner in which Gavron and Morgan explore the societal norms of the early 1900s is a great asset to the film.
Also working in the picture’s favour is a uniformly excellent cast. Mulligan is incredible, an identifiable lead whose struggles and determination are conveyed nicely in her performance, and she’s matched by an excellent supporting cast, including two-time Academy Award nominee Helena Bonham-Carter (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) who uncharacteristically underplays her role as suffragette leader Edith Ellyn and three-time Golden Globe Award nominee Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, In the Heart of the Sea), who is handed the most sympathetic male role in the film as a policeman assigned to dismantle the increasingly outspoken suffragette campaign, a job he takes despite being heavily conflicted as to his own views on the matter. Three-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Iron Lady) also turns up as the famous suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, and while she’s as good as we’ve all come to expect, her involvement is minimal, despite what the marketing material would have you believe. She turns up for three or four minutes then leaves, never to be seen again in the film.
Despite its strong eye for detail and an equally effective cast, Suffragette drags and it drags badly. The film has no real direction for it to go in, it’s set in too tight a time frame to depict the movement’s success and it struggles to find enough material to encompass its bloated 106-minute runtime. That’s not an especially long film in the grand scheme of things, but Suffragette rarely manages to find a compelling pace to run at, especially as the film goes on, lurching from historical bullet point to historical bullet point with the passing of time portrayed in a vague and unclear manner. Suffragette wants to tell the story of the suffragette movement, a story that deserves to be told for sure, but doesn’t seem to understand that the story it’s telling is at once too big to cover in a single film and too small to be covered when examined in such a tight time frame.
The filmmakers resort to introducing copious amounts of fictional characters to help the story along. That’s an understatement actually; with the exception of three supporting characters, every single person (Maud included) featured in the film is made up, and the filmmakers try to use these fictional constructs to provide a personal through line for the story. Primarily, we’re meant to connect with Maud’s disagreements with her husband, but the man is never presented in a sympathetic enough light for us to care about his side of things, and the film gets so frequently distracted by the allure of historical events that it fails to cover Maud’s to an appropriate degree either.
The result of all this is a movie that seems confused about what it’s trying to do, splitting its time between the fictitious personal problems of its heroine and its staccato jumps from historical event to historical event. Neither aspect of the film is given the time it deserves and neither aspect of the film is especially successful as a result. The film feels long and slow because of this confusion, an incredible achievement considering how overstuffed it is with underserved plots, and when the film finally does reach its abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion, the problem’s with setting it in such a small time frame truly sink in.
Suffragette does not have a beginning, middle or end. It’s all middle. By inventing the character of Maud, the film attempts to provide that structure on a personal level, but its attention is so divided between this and the movement at large that the result is a jumbled, sprawling mess. The suffragette movement is an incredible piece of history, a story that deserves to be told and so, potentially, is Maud’s tale, one of personal heartbreak and sacrifice. They both deserved so much more than Suffragette gives them, and while its cast does great work and an attention to detail pays off nicely, the film reaches its conclusion with a horrible whimper.