If only Carey Mulligan had been inspired to protest for the right to a better script for “Suffragette,” an overly schematic look at the struggle for women’s voting rights in 1910s Britain that almost gets by on the strength of a great slow burn of a lead performance. As much as the movie wants to overplay its hand at virtually every turn, Mulligan just as surely undersells the transformations that her initially mousy laundry worker undergoes on the way to suffragette city. She deserves a vehicle that’s worthier of her nuance, but she’ll pick up a lot of women’s (and men’s) votes in early 2016 anyway.
If your idea of the English suffrage movement was mostly informed by Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins,” director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan want to give us something that feels closer in spirit to “12 Years a Slave.” The lack of the vote is just the tip of the subjugation and degradation iceberg here. Husbands remind their wives that they’re property, throwing them into the street if they get political or uppity; police beat female demonstrators bloody with batons, then imprison them under false pretenses; bosses grope and threaten female sweat-shop workers in front of the entire workplace; mothers don’t even have the right to keep their children if a father wants to give them away. All these abuses certainly happened in the era depicted, and they all happen in fairly short order to Maud (Mulligan), so that we might buy her accelerated transformation from mild-mannered housewife to bomb-lobbing domestic terrorist.
Maud almost accidentally becomes a suffragette when, intending just to visit a government hearing about workplace abuses, she gets drafted to give her testimony as the co-worker who was supposed to speak gets roughed up. From there, her enlightenment and persecution proceed in parallel measure. As soon as her husband (Ben Whishaw) assures her he’s only trying to look out for her, it’s clear he’s destined to join the film’s brigade of unrepentantly sexist villains. As things go from bad to worse for Maud, and then even more dire still, a truly militant feminist played by Helena Bonham Carter inducts her into a cadre of street soldiers who believe that “war is the only language men understand.”
That last line is actually uttered by Maud, as is, “We’re in every home. We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all!” She blurts out these slogans as a kind of confession to her chief pursuer, Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Steed, who keeps arresting her and then eventually letting her go. His Irish accent accentuates the nagging feeling that — with all the discussion about the need for violent resistance — we’re really watching a movie about the IRA. You keep hoping they won’t have cast an actor as capable as Gleeson to be the stock bad guy his introductory scenes suggest, and the movie does eventually give him at least some conflicted brow-furrowing, but the actor is still overqualified for the role.
That goes quadruple for Meryl Streep, who, you may have already heard, has only one scene and about three minutes of screen time as Mrs. Pankhurst, one of the few real-life characters to figure into this fictionalization. Her stunt cameo is quite good — surprise — as she shows up to deliver an inspirational hotel-balcony speech to hundreds of women who’ve furtively gathered on the street below. If she didn’t already seem Churchillian enough, Streep crosses paths afterward with Mulligan just long enough to impart a battle cry: “Never surrender! Never give up the fight!”
That’s a fairly hammy moment, but the film occasionally lightens up on its heavy hand long enough to manage a moment of subtlety. Mulligan’s testimony in front of that government committee early on is a thing of actorly wonder. One of the few sympathetic men in the film asks her what good might come if women got the vote, and she confesses she never had cause to consider the after-effects because the very idea had seemed so ludicrous. The barest flicker of unforeseen hope registers on her face, and while it’s easy to imagine this close-up as corny in almost any other actress’s hands, Mulligan beautifully underplays it as an almost imperceptible eureka moment.
“Suffragette” too rarely seems terribly interested in her or anyone else in the movie as a living-and-breathing character, as opposed to a message-movie totem. This is underscored by the climax, which, without giving too much away, is one of the few moments where a bit of actual history is recreated amid the fiction. A subsidiary character drives the action in this final scene, leaving Maud as basically a bystander in the final minutes of what’s supposed to have been her movie. There’s apparently no need to linger over character beats or wonder what will become of the heroine when the film is rushing toward a closing crawl that gives one last bit of historical information about the global women’s rights struggle.
But Mulligan makes you care about what Maud’s life will be like in the days and months to come, even if the script doesn’t. Before the film’s Telluride Film Festival premiere, the director noted that the actress wanted to be on hand but couldn’t because she’s expecting “her suffragette baby.” Indeed, if the film does wind up imparting that fighting spirit, and carries the movement in whatever measure to the next generation of viewers, perhaps it will have succeeded in its aims. [C]