A “Time Out” photoshoot featuring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan in T-shirts reading “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” has overshadowed the London premiere of “Suffragette,” the awards-season warhorse about the struggle for women’s right to vote. Although the quote comes from real-life suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, whom Streep plays in the movie, its appropriation as a present-day promotional slogan struck the Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay as “peak white feminism,” and drew attention to the racist arguments some white British activists used to underpin their arguments.
But ill-conceived promotional stunts aside, how’s the actual movie? Pretty good, at least according to critics in the U.K., who give “Suffragette” notably higher marks than the film received at its previous screenings at Telluride in September. The specter of a tasteful, feel-good paean to a bygone cause is often raised, but only as a way of pointing out that’s not what “Suffragette” is. Like “Selma,” it’s characterized as a movie attentive to the mechanics of political activism, not just the passions behind it, and the movie’s closing titles point out that, while voting rights for women have been a settled issue in Britain and the U.S. for nearly a century, in other parts of the world, it’s still something that needs fighting for. Too bad the movie’s promotional team overlooked the fact that, while women are not in danger of losing the vote in the U.S., people of color are still systematically disenfranchised by unnecessary voting restrictions, which is one reason why the “rebel/slave” messages landed so badly here. A photo shoot is not a movie, but it might take some more positive Stateside reviews to repair the damage.
Reviews of “Suffragette”
Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter
A lushly appointed period piece about the women’s suffrage movement in England in the early 20th century sounds like “Masterpiece Theatre” fodder, polite and tasteful and a bit pallid. The surprise of “Suffragette” is how much anger and urgency it contains, and how much new material it unearths. It must be admitted that the film takes a little while to get going, and the Cockney accents are not always easy to decipher. But “Suffragette” builds power as it demonstrates that these women were not gentle protestors. They were angry and sometimes violent, and they were arrested and often treated brutally while incarcerated. The shocking climactic scene, which is taken from history, reminds us that all struggles for equality involve searing sacrifices.
Robbie Collin, Telegraph
Sarah Gavron’s film about the British women’s suffrage movement technically qualifies as period drama: its story takes place in 1912 and 1913, and its sets and costumes vividly and convincingly evoke a bygone age. But it’s written, shot and acted with a hot-blooded urgency that reminds you the struggle it depicts is an ongoing one — and which shakes up this most well-behaved of genres with a surge of civil disobedience.
Cath Clarke, Time Out
Nearly 100 years after smashing shop windows and blowing up letterboxes, the British suffragettes finally get a film they deserve. And thank god it’s not a pretty-pretty sugarcoated period drama. Writer Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) and director Sarah Gavron’s (“Brick Lane”) tough, raw, bleak-looking film makes the suffragettes’ dilemma feel immediate and real. You feel the knife-edge danger of women risking everything: sacked from their jobs, locked up in prison, force fed, separated from their children. But if not, them, who?
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
When Grau announces that she would “rather be a rebel than a slave,” her words register on a compelling level not only because they empower Maude, but also for the broader motivational spirit they reflect. It’s hard to accuse a movie designed to address a major social issue for being too preachy. “We’re half the human race,” Maude tells the authorities in the midst of her imprisonment. “You can’t stop us all.” The finality of that assessment turns “Suffragette” into the year’s best superhero movie that doesn’t star a bunch of guys.
Fionnuala Hannigan, Screen Daily
For all that it is set up as a classic prestige film with impeccable production credits, “Suffragette” is markedly unusual looking – Spanish cinematographer Eduard “Edu” Grau (Tom Ford’s “A Single Man”) shot in Super 16, according to the production notes, using a tricky color palette which accents the green and purple colors of the Suffragette movement. The overall result can feel jarring during individual sequences amidst the tea-stained tones of the time, but has a cumulative effect which is curiously disturbing, perhaps even subversive. It’s a film with movement and energy, despite its period prison.
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
There are two sides to this story, either side of the class divide: there are the liberal patricians whose connections were vital; they were and are subject to ridicule and mockery – teasing which persists in movies like “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “Mary Poppins.” But the actual footsoldiers like Maud were subject to something rougher: imprisonment, unemployment and poverty. There are tough scenes showing the catastrophic disintegration of Maud’s family and the pure grisliness of force-feeding in the case of hunger strikes. This film does an important job in reminding us of this: a drama about human rights so recently and dearly won.
David Jenkins, Little White Lies
At its best, “Suffragette” is a film about taking heed of the benefits of democracy, even when that democracy isn’t working for you. It critiques politicians — harshly, but fairly — in their inability to see the problems that sit right at the end of their bulbous noses. You could switch out the cause of universal female suffrage with any hot button political concern, and the film would serve it amply. That’s both its great success and its great failing –—in making this struggle feel generic, it betrays the bloody defiance in which these women were regularly engaging, as well as the fact that theirs was a specifically defined entitlement.
Jane Purvis, Times Higher Education
Given that there was so much drama, passion and humor in the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain, why have we had to wait until 2015 for a feature film about the subject? Women’s history has been marginalized in the male-dominated film industry, just as in the academy. “Suffragette”, telling the story of First Wave Feminism from the women’s point of view, is an inspiring corrective. But more than this, “Suffragette” has relevance for a modern-day audience in its message about the struggle for equality for women in all walks of life. It portrays the suffragette movement as a multi-stranded movement, concerned with wider social reforms than the vote. Women in Britain today are still struggling for equal pay, an end to gender-based violence, equal representation in Parliament and in boardrooms.
Justin Chang, Variety
Notwithstanding the righteous fury of its central characters, radical gestures and anarchic impulses are in short supply in “Suffragette,” which has an awful lot of fascinating information to convey and only the most familiar tools with which to convey it (an unmemorable Alexandre Desplat score among them). It’s a movie of stultifying, spell-it-all-out conventionality, where character arcs and history lessons dovetail with the sort of tidiness that refutes the messy complexity of actual history, and where inspiring an audience means never having to provoke or challenge it. For if Gavron’s film is what used to be called a “women’s picture” in the righteous, rabble-rousing sense, it also turns out to be one in the tearjerking, 1940s-Hollywood sense — a three-Panky melodrama in which the issue of female suffrage comes in second to the spectacle of female suffering.
Walter Chaw, Film Freak Central
Gavron is guilty of a couple of things here. She’s guilty of being a boring and relatively unimaginative filmmaker. And she’s guilty of using stock shots and strategies to lend pathos to a scenario that doesn’t need her help. In the suspect pursuit of that, her screenwriter Abi Morgan — who did fantastic work on Steve McQueen’s “Shame” — creates a character in Maud who functions a little like a distaff Job, set upon by the plagues of the world in an attempt, again, to lend pathos to a situation that’s already wrought with it. Why they would choose to tell this story as a girl-Oliver Twist thing is beyond me. The danger, and I think it happens with “Suffragette” repeatedly, is that telling this ridiculous, Lifetime/Harlequin pap story in place of the far more compelling stories at its periphery runs the risk of “Titanic”-izing history in the clumsiest of ways.
Chris Willman, The Playlist
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.