CAPSULE: As a middling, if well intentioned, film, SUFFRAGETTE tells the story of one woman in London who joins the 1920s political movement to allow women voting rights. The weight of the British government comes down on her to force her to stop demonstrating for votes for women. The cause is great, but the film account in SUFFRAGETTE is tepid and rather by-the-numbers. Sarah Gavron directs a screenplay by Abi Morgan. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
There seems to be a standard film plot I would call "The Making of a Political Radical." There is a political cause but the main character is only vaguely aware of it. He (or she) is unsympathetic or at most mildly concerned about the cause. But then the character becomes an innocent bystander when an incident occurs that marks him, unjustly, as being an activist for the cause. The power of the system comes down on our bystander and more and more he sees the faults inherent in the system. His views become stronger and he more and more becomes the kind of raging activist that he was earlier wrongly accused of being. One can see this pattern in films like THE WILBY CONSPIRACY, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Eventually our one-time bystander has become a committed political zealot. Note, I am not saying the cause is wrong, but this is a by the numbers way to write a plot that may engage the audience.
In SUFFRAGETTE Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan) is one of innumerable downtrodden women in horrible jobs in London in the 1920s.--Cinematographer Eduard Grau make the laundry where Maud works look like an inner ring of Dante's hell. Maud has very few rights and most of what rights she has she gets through her husband at his discretion. Her husband Sonny even keeps Maud from seeing her own child. And Sonny is not at all sympathetic when Maud suddenly develops political interests. (Sonny is played, incidentally, by Ben Whishaw, the young Q in current James Bond films.)
Maud is aware of the suffragette movement, but she does not have time for politics in her miserable, over-worked life. Then a woman who works with Maud is going to testify to Parliament on how bad women's work conditions are. But the woman who was to testify is beaten and Maud is forced to speak in her place. Unintentionally, Maud has become one of the more visible spokespersons for improving working conditions for and for votes for women. The movement is led by Emmeline Pankhurst (played briefly by Meryl Streep). Seen a little more is another ally, played by Helena Bonham Carter.
Through Maud's eyes we see the government's attempts to stifle the women calling for votes. We see a struggle a good deal more violent than most people realize. Torture and sexual abuse is used to punish uncooperative women.
The issues raised in SUFFRAGETTE are still relevant today. Gender inequity is still front-page news. It has been lessened in this country as public sympathy has shifted to being much more sympathetic in favor of Women's Rights. So to some extent this film is preaching to the choir and using a familiar and well-worn story structure. Still, the film is presented with good performances and the quality production values one so frequently sees in UK films. I rate SUFFRAGETTE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3077214/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suffragette/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2015 Mark R. Leeper