Director: Sarah Gavron
Writer: Abi Morgan
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Press, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson.
If ever there was a film that sort of validates those ridiculous, dangerous, and abysmally stupid men’s rights movements it’s this one, and it’s a real shame and pity that the movie in question is about one of the biggest triumphs of women’s rights: the right for women to vote. We take the notion of women voting completely for granted these days in the western hemisphere and the developed world, but not all that long ago it wasn’t so. Heck, in Saudi Arabia women had to wait until 2015 for their first ever vote, which was the last country missing for equal voting rights in the entire world (the Vatican is weird and for this very scientific reason I am not counting it). You’d think that the suffrage movement in England would be ripe for a good story with plenty of historical data to draw from? Well, the assumption is correct, but the filmmakers wanted nothing to do with pesky historical accuracy. Instead, a bunch of made up characters take up all the screen time – the only two real historical figures, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press), are glorified cameos, especially in Streep’s case, who is in the movie maybe a total of 2 minutes. Mostly the film is a compilation of police and state brutality against women, abuse against women at the hand of bosses and husbands, and a sad descent into a bizarre cinematographic Murphy’s Law. Men are depicted as absolutely and universally evil, and this is a disservice to the message of the movie. The enemy, embodied by male privilege and power, was very much real and threat existed, but by making the antagonists so garish and absent of even the slightest bit of humanity and pathos is a stylistic misstep for a film that wishes to celebrate a huge political and social accomplishment in the twentieth century.
The other huge mistake was making Carey Mulligan the face for the movement. Mulligan plays the fictional Maud Watts, a young wife and mother who works as a laundress. From falling into the suffrage movement completely by accident, to finding herself in every major important event of the movement, all the while suffering the most out of anyone else in the film, Maud reads on screen as this movie’s Forrest Gump, which makes what happens to her, even the most harrowing of events, nearly laughable in its lunacy. It doesn’t really help that Mulligan belongs to the subset of British actress ingenues that think that an extremely subtle pout conveys every single emotion known to man (other members of the club include Felicity Jones and Keira Knightley). I would have loved to see what someone like Natalie Dormer or Emily Blunt could have done with the material, but alas, we shall never know. Ben Whishaw (who is in everything this year) plays her evil husband who is loving in the first scene, but turns on her so quickly and fiercely that I got whiplash from the urgency the screenwriter changed his demeanor and affect.
Rounding out the cast of suffragettes are Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai, but really this movie is almost exclusively about Maud, as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to care about the movement or the story unless we had one single character to embody all of the action. I had big hopes for this film, and even set aside the criticisms about the whitewashing of the story and the historical inaccuracies hoping the film could still rise up to the task, which didn’t happen. The story was worthy of being told, just not this way, and that is very sad because it will be a long time before someone else is going to be given the chance to tell the story correctly.