Suffragette is not a story of the suffrage movement, either from its conception or during the days of women finally getting the vote. The film takes place in London in 1912, after the cause was already well established, but still years away from some of the main historical events. The script from Abi Morgan (Shame) isn't as interested in the larger movement as it is in telling the story of a single suffragette and how the movement completely destroyed her life, one important thing at a time.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a wife and mother who works in the laundry factory she was born in and her mother died in. She gets pulled into the movement by accident, stumbling across historical events as they unfold. As a matter of fact, all the characters in the film are fictional except for Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement, and Emily Davison, the first publicized martyr of the cause.
The idea of putting a fictional character around historical events is a sound one and several movies have pulled it off successfully, but the film almost treads Forrest Gump grounds with how many moments of import Maud is around for. Mulligan's performance is excellent as she continues her tradition of playing everything with her eyes while letting the rest of her face be still. But the film can't seem to decide whether to be Maud's harrowing personal tale of loss and perseverance or a metaphor for terrorism in a time where the law was criminal.
Noticeably absent are any women, nay people of color in the entire film. While white women were predominantly a part of the London movement in those days, there was, at the very least, an Indian princess named Sophia Duleep Singh who marched with Pankhurst in those days. Even in the laundry scenes, there is not a single person of color to be seen. This isn't about checking diversity boxes, but actually being true to many records that state that London's West End would have been full of Black Britons in those days. It is an odd and problematic omission from a film that otherwise does a stunning job reproducing early-20th century London.
Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) does an excellent job with pacing and the washed-out color palate gives the film a subsuming grimy and layered texture, but structurally it feels anti-climactic and too slight to be memorable. While the film didn't need to be a macro look at the suffragette movement, even as a character study this film doesn't work since we are left without any closure on Maud's story. And while the idea of Maud Watts being just another face in the movement, another soldier on the lines of equal rights, is a powerful one, the translation of that idea is flawed. There are many pieces of the film to respect and admire, but a movie just focused on white feminism isn't really about equal rights at all.
Dir. Sarah Gavron
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