Suffragette (Focus Features, PG-13)

Suffragette 75There’s no denying when a film doesn’t work, and in the end, Suffragette doesn’t.

 

  

Suffragette 500

The new film Suffragette is one of those films that takes a major historical event, and one of the sort that most people know some about but not many people know all that much about, and then invent a character to act as a surrogate for the audience, so that they can in effect relive the events that the movie depicts. As you can hopefully guess by the title, the historical event in question here is the Suffragette movement in 1910s England, where women fought for the right to vote. And I do mean “fought”—planting bombs, plotting major acts of civil disobedience, that kind of thing. To use an American civil rights movement analogy, they’re more Malcolm X than Dr. King.

Our fictional surrogate character is Maud (Carey Mulligan), a plain, lower-class textile worker mother, married to a nondescript textile worker husband named Sonny (Ben Whishaw), and mother of a generically cute little moppet called George (Adam Michael Dodd). At the plant where Maud and Sonny work there is also one Violet Miller (another construct of the film, here played by Anne-Marie Duff), a fairly outspoken Suffragette, who on account of this doesn’t have many friends, and, in fact, has many enemies. In an act of standing up for her, Maud gets roped into the Suffragette world and gets in deeper and deeper from there, encountering such real-life notables as Emmeline Pankhurst (here played by Meryl Streep) and Emily Davison (My Summer of Love’s Natalie Press) along the way.

Suffragette is the rare film to have been directed by one female, Brick Lane’s Sarah Gavron, written by another female, Abi Morgan, and starring a cast of mostly women, including the leads. Both Mulligan and Streep have ties to Ms. Morgan—Mulligan acted in the Morgan-scripted Shame in 2011, and Streep won an Oscar for playing Margaret Thatcher from a Morgan script in the same year’s The Iron Lady. And while all of the performances, especially Ms. Mulligan’s (of whom I’m a fan), are strong, and Morgan’s script is at least functional, Ms. Gavron’s direction and, most especially, Eduard Grau’s cinematography leaves a lot to be desired. Grau seems to think he’s shooting a modern-set action movie for Paul Greengrass—it’s all ugly compositions in shakycam, and doesn’t suit the material well at all. I’m guessing that they’re aiming to make the viewer feel like they were there, but it doesn’t work; it only aids in making the seams show, and taking you out of the movie.

It’s neat that Suffragette focuses less on the movement as it does the struggle, and a big part of me wants to like this film. But there’s no denying when a film doesn’t work, and in the end, Suffragette doesn’t. | Pete Timmermann

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