Suffragette is a costume drama set in an early 20th Century London in which working class women frustrated with the women’s suffrage movement’s lack of progress gained through years of peaceful protest decide to stake their claim through civil disobedience. You can pretty much guess how the film goes from there, as there are very few stylistic embellishments provided to distinguish the film from the majority of its genre. Much of Suffragette is a dutiful catalog of the daily injustices a typical working-class woman might’ve suffered a century ago, including domestic abuse, the tyranny of the second shift, lack of rights in terms of child custody or property ownership, rampant sexual assault from male authority figures, more work for less pay, and a brutal class system that essentially amounted to lifelong indentured servitude for the less-than-fortunate. In response to these oppressive forces, lofty proclomations are announced for the audience’s benefits, phrases like “All my life I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now,” “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” and “You’re a mother, Maude. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” “I’m not just that anymore.” The rest of the dialogue is mostly comprised of the film’s “suffragettes” greeting each other by name at various political rallies in long strings of “Edith.” “Maude.” “Violet.” Etc. There’s some genuine tension achieved through the gradual escalation of violence in the women’s various protests, but for the most part Suffragette‘s significance as entertainment depends heavily on how you feel about straightforward costume dramas as a genre. As for me, I thought it was pretty alright.
Perhaps the only real surprise Suffragette brings to the table is the way it also plays like a wartime drama. Filmed in drab earth tones & grimly scored, the film literally pits men & women together as opposite sides in a hard-fought war. Police stations function as war rooms, women train themselves (often through montage) to look tough by not crying & to fight hand-to-hand, violence escalates from smashed window displays of shops to homemade bombs, men detect & dissect weaknesses in their ranks, and so on. Suffragette seems very much aware of its war movie tendencies & draws a distinctly linear, A-B progression from how the idea that “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote” leads directly to the assertion that “We burn things because war is the only language men understand.” It’s, of course, a well-justified shift in protest tactics, since the men in charge were highly unlikely to budge from their stance that “Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands” without intense physical provocation. As far as war films go, Suffragette is light on both violence & battlefield strategic planning, but that genre context is still undeniable.
If Suffragette suffers one particular Achilles heel that hinders it from exceeding its genre limitations, it’s in the film’s pacing. As a mildly-fictionalized historical overview of a specific moment of tribulation in London’s past, the film feels the need to hit a wide range of plot points like it’s dutifully fulfilling a checklist. The always-welcome Carey Mulligan is perfectly engaging as the protagonist Maude, but the way the movie moves through her various victories & degradations rarely leaves enough room for her moments of crisis to properly land will full impact. Just like how Maude is sort of swept up by the suffragette movement around her without ever intending to become an activist, her run-ins with threatened imprisonment, police brutality, troubled relationships with family & employers, and subsequent public shaming all feel like natural, easy-to-come-by progressions instead of the moments of utter devastation that they could have been if they had allowed to properly breathe. In a lot of ways the sole moment the film allows the proper reverence for is an overblown Meryl Streep cameo in which the universally-loved actress is treated like royalty as she briskly passes through the film (even though she”s prominently featured on the poster). Not helping at all is a steady-as-she-goes score from Grand Buddapest Hotel‘s Alexandre Desplat. The score sounds fine, but it rarely escalates to match the action, so that the whole runtime just sort of runs together with very little tonal distinction.
I almost hate to say it, since it plays into the current cultural tidal shift in media preference, but Suffragette might have been better served as a television show or a one-off mini-series than as a feature film. The movie covered a little too much ground to establish any significantly intimate moments with its characters and as a result I really felt the back & forth war of the sexes would’ve played much better over the course of 20 hours instead of 2. As is, it’s a serviceable genre film that melds the finer aspects of the costume drama & the war film into a just-alright compromise of the two aesthetics. It’s pretty much destined to be mid-afternoon easy-viewing for a certain kind of target audience. And there are certainly much worse fates than that.