With this year’s London Film Festival being billed as ‘the year of strong women’, the opening film certainly fits the bill.
Suffragette documents the struggle of women to win the right to vote against a backdrop of continuing oppression and ridicule. The central focus is on Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who works in an industrial-scale laundry in 1912 London alongside her husband (Ben Wishaw). A devoted wife and mother, Maud watches on as a passive observer as some of her fellow workers, most notably Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), take direct action to win the vote.
Slowly dragged into the struggle herself, Maud joins a group of radicals with the assistance of chemist Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter) to push for equality. Trying to uphold the law is is an Irish Inspector Steed (a typically gruff Brendan Gleeson), who is dedicated to his job, but can also see the preposterous nature of some of his duties.
As Maud is drawn into the cat-and-mouse world of capture and escape, she spends less time at home causing her even more problems as she faces up to the prospect of losing her son. Is she willing to fight on?
A large problem is the annoying decision to film everything with uncomfortably tight framing. We get the intensity and desperation of certain scenes from this, but it means we lose any sense of scale for the rest of the film. The internal struggle Maud faces feels authentic, but the scenes of London from the era look to be hastily realised on screen. They look low-budget and apparently are meant to. It’s a bizarre result given that the filmmakers proudly lay claim to being the first movie ever shot at The Houses of Parliament. It could be a cheap location on the backlot of Pinewood for all we can see.
Authenticity should have been the paramount word, but instead feels like a burden for the filmmakers.
Writer Abi Morgan manages to convey the sense of desperation well with some touching scenes, but these too lack a sense of the bigger picture. Suffragette is best viewed as a depiction of one woman’s struggle against the odds, rather than an all-encompassing fight of universal importance.
Meryl Streep, heavily included in the promotion of the film, makes an all-too brief cameo as Emmeline Pankhusrt. A firebrand leader for sure, but we get little idea of what political channels she was facing up against. It could be argued that her interaction with Maud is kept as limited as it would have been for any woman fighting for greater good, yet in filmmaking terms we feel cheated by Streep’s limited appearance.
The two stand-outs are Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter. Both women deliver superb performances and carry the majority of the film. Mulligan is the crucial player, but it’s great to see Bonham-Carter step out of her eccentric caricature routine for a change.
Overall this is an underwhelming film, albeit with a notable cause.