It’s 2015 and feminism is still considered a four-letter word by too many. Girls around the world are forced to fight for their right to education. Young women are slut shamed, objectified, and told that their well-being is not as important as the idea of personhood. Rape culture rages with victims being blamed, ignored or forgotten. Despite all this, there are women who proudly proclaim they don’t need feminism.
Into this chaotic climate comes Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a period piece that should feel like a war cry but comes off as a vexing victory lap. Set in 1912 London, this drama centers on the activism of working class women through the composite character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a factory worker, wife and mother initially too polite to cause much fuss. But despite the eyebrow furrowing of her husband-of-his-time (a mustachioed Ben Whishaw), Maud joins forces with real-life suffragettes like Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press), serving as foot soldiers to the civil disobedience strategies laid out by Emmeline Pankhurst (played here in fleeting glances by Meryl Streep).
Maud goes from mild-mannered everywoman to feared revolutionary. Yet her journey feels hollow and sanitized. She is set up to be knocked down so she might display for what every woman of England could have lost in this struggle. But there’s one thing Maud won’t lose. (Spoilers for a historic event that happened over 100 years ago.) It’s not Maud who will lose her life to further the cause. When she doesn’t, you might well wonder—as I did—why the movie didn’t then focus on the woman who did instead of some mundane amalgam. It’s a move that may be well-intentioned, but ultimately drains significance and impact from the narrative.
The performances in the film are fine. Mulligan competently manages the transformation from oppressed wallflower to fearless freedom fighter. Streep’s few minutes of screen time are full of moxie, though a bit reminiscent of Mary Poppins’s silly suffragette. Carter offers her most understated performance in years, and is all the more engaging for it. Regrettably, Gavron misses the opportunity to translate the boldness of these women to the film’s aesthetic.
Instead, she drapes “Suffragette” with dull greys, greens and browns. Her reliance on handheld camera makes the action scenes feel unwieldy rather than dangerous, carefully keeping the cruel violence against women out of the frame or out of focus, turning what should be a shocking scene of police brutality into a stale montage of friction and frowns. All this detracts from what these women risked, making “Suffragette” feels as dated as the particulars of its battle.
Rather addressing contemporary feminist issues, “Suffragette” touches on rape culture, abortion, and pay equality with little more than sad, knowing glances. Maybe that’s true to the period. But why bother be beholden to that when building a docudrama on a fictional protagonist? The charcters’ talk of civil disobedience descends into bombing mailboxes and an empty mansion. Yet the film never dares to take a solid stand on how such tactics should be perceived today. Suffragette is painfully heavy in self-importance, yet refuses to say much more than “look how much work and pain went into getting the right to vote!”
I’m deeply disappointed. Gavron’s Brick Lane was sensual, stirring and poignant. For her narrative follow-up she chose to take on another woman’s war. Yet she did it playing within the guidelines established by decades of white male moviemakers. This film should have taken risks artistically that would have reflected those of the women its meant to honor. It should have not only shown what early feminists gave, but also speak to feminist struggles now. Simply put, it should have felt like a revolution.