The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? That seems to be the resounding message in Sarah Gavron’s (“Brick Lane”) latest, a dull British period piece about the women’s suffrage movement in England. The film follows four working class women as they become foot soldiers fighting (often literally) for the right to vote. Told in the manner of a PBS special screened for high school history courses, the film loses the punch it could pack.
Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) is a dream as Maud, a young laundress who finds herself in the middle of the suffrage movement. Her performance is full of emotional intensity, which is no surprise because Carey Mulligan is always a dream. Held against the lackluster performances of the other actresses, Mulligan is not enough to give “Suffragette” the heart it so greatly lacks. That heartlessness extends to Gavron’s palette, which, like many films in its genre, is characterized by blues and greys that scream, “This is London! It’s drab and dreary!” Unfortunately, that message applies to the entire film.
Though the film’s status as “star-studded” relies heavily on the presence Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”), she is barely present. You could hold your breath the entire time she is on screen without breaking a sweat. Therefore, Streep’s dominating presence in the trailer and promotional events seems quite misleading.
We must watch “Suffragette” through the lens of the modern world — a world in which many of the issues acknowledged (but not addressed) by the film still exist for women. The factory scenes seem oddly modern in the way workplace sexual harassment is swept under the rug. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell, “Kingsman: Secret Service”) gropes her in front of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw, “Spectre”) without causing Sonny much concern. The women of “Suffragette” are at the same time powerless and powerful, an oxymoronic state that feels familiar even in 2015.
“Suffragette” falls into the recently expanding genre of social-justice historical dramas (a genre categorized by powerhouse films like “Selma” and “Milk”). If historical dramas are responses to modern social movements, “Suffragette” would appear to be a response to the ever-dismissed, ever-important fight for women’s rights. However, “Suffragette” isn’t completely representative of feminism today. The early stages of the suffrage movement were not interested in racial equality. Therefore, the film is forced by nature of its subject matter to present a completely whitewashed version of feminism, a portrayal that alienates a large portion of its target audience. We need a movie about the feminist movement, but this is perhaps the wrong historical moment to try to make relevant to 2015 feminism.
In light of recent events, the treatment of the “militant” activities of the suffragettes is difficult to watch, mainly because what these real women did, and what their fictional counterparts are doing in “Suffragette,” is a form of terrorism. They cause no physical harm, but all their destructive actions hold the threat of harm. Explosions in mailboxes, bricks thrown through windows, the destruction of an entire home in the country all capitalize on fear (also known as terror) in order to make change. Why then are they called militants and not terrorists? That word choice is key because when labeled as militants their actions are dismissed as acceptable — acceptable because we agree with their cause. What “Suffragette” highlights, seemingly accidentally, is the fact that sometimes the “good guys” and the “bad guys” have the same strategies.
“Suffragette” didn’t come out on the wrong weekend, it came out in the wrong world, a world in which terrorism controls the lives of a constantly growing number of people. The glorification of this type of activism, then, reads not only as insensitive but also elitist. “Suffragette” could have possibly been saved had it decided to address the duality of the movement as both progressive in 1912 and problematic in 2015.
The best part of the film is its ending (and not just because this bore of a film is finally over). More often than not, historical films fail because their endings suggest a false aspect of completion. But, by choosing to end the film in 1912, 14 years before British women gain equal voting rights, Gavron makes it clear that the fight for equality is not over.
“Suffragette” could join the ranks of throwaway British period pieces (unique only by its lack of Keira Knightley) but the film’s context within the modern world provides the possibility for longevity — it makes cultural points, but not necessarily the right ones. Maybe “Suffragette” will only be remembered for what it does wrong, but at least it will (unlike many of its peer films) be remembered.