Meryl And Mulligan Suffer In Bleak ‘Suffreagette’ Story

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“The finest eloquence is that which gets things done.”

David Lloyd George (played by Adrian Schiller) utters above in Sarah Gavron’s breakout film Suffragette, and it epitomizes every bit of her latest work—it doesn’t have to be clean, it doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to get things done.

Directed by Gavron, Suffragette tells the personal stories of Maud Watts, Violet Miller, Edith Ellyn, and many other leaders of the feminist movement in 20-century England. On a grander scale, Suffragette is designed to recall the progress that women’s rights activists have made and the suffering that they have endured to further the cause. The film stars several lesser-known actors and actresses, but, thankfully, this does not detract from its merit. Carey Mulligan, made famous by her successive and popular roles in An Education (2009), Drive (2011), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), plays Maud Watts with a passion and fire that perfectly embodies the women’s rights movement itself. Anne-Marie Duff plays supporting character Violet Miller, and Helena Bonham Carter lends her grace and poise as the active head of the feminist movement, Edith Ellyn. 

On the whole, Suffragette seems to follow the ideal “less is more” as long as it works ascetic. Cinematographer Eduard Grau follows suit with previous films on his résume (The Awakening and Buried being notable examples) and chooses a bland, gloomy color palette, which very heavily contributes to Suffragette’s tone of despair. Alexandre Desplat’s compositions for the film are incredibly reminiscent of the soundtrack of Argo (2012), and do wonders in terms of tension-building despite their infrequent appearances. The visual effects crew doesn’t pull any punches in punctuated use of violence. Every sequence of violence, particularly (spoilers ahead) the scene in which Maud is force-fed through a nasal feeding tube, demonstrates the horrors that befell the real-life Suffragettes. The movie’s final twist, a suffragette’s brutal death-by-horse-trampling, makes excellent use of shock value and drives home the reality that women in the 1920s lived in nightmarish conditions.

Unfortunately, Sarah Gavron’s work is (somewhat ironically) afflicted by the same problem that flesh and blood suffragettes faced in the 19th century—men. Remember the cast members listed above? None of the commendable cast in Suffragette are men. Norman Taylor (played by Geoff Bell) is unnecessarily and unrealistically vile, a personality more befitting of a serial killer or a dictator than that of a common laundry manager. The husband of Maud Watts, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), plays it painfully one-sided, without any real motivation for his actions. Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) lacks any human emotion, and, for that matter, any human sensibility at all. The ends to which Inspector Steed goes in order to bring Maud Watts to justice—breaking and entering, torture, stalking, and more—simply lacks any realism.

The easy accusation would be that these actors simply failed to deliver, but it seems more likely that this shortcoming is caused by sub-par writing. Abi Morgan, known for her writing of historically-based screenplays, fails to pen any realistic villains for Suffragette. Without an effective antagonist, the film fails to stimulate interest in its subject matter. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the shortfall of Gavron’s movie: it simply lacks the ability to absorb its audience. On the educational front, Suffragette delivers on a grand scale—those who see it will see a side of the women’s rights movements that oftentimes goes untaught in schools. However, without consistent, wholly-empathetic writing, the film simply doesn’t earn its one-hour, 40-minute run time.

Those who are especially passionate about women’s rights will likely enjoy Suffragette, but the sad reality is that this is a small percentage of the human population. Most people simply aren’t informed enough on the topic to derive anything but fiery emotion by the time the credits roll, and the movie fails to offer enough exposition or historical fact to change this. While it contains many working parts, Suffragette is likely doomed to the fate of quietly becoming nothing more than a background cult classic.

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