Hooray! We are finally here! We have survived the mind numbing action blockbusters of the summer and have begun the journey in to the hallowed movie months known as awards season. Though most of the real heavy hitters won’t be coming out until nearer 2016 and beyond, the first sightings of films with ambitions of grandeur are beginning to creep in to the theatres, and one such ambitious picture is Suffragette, a British period piece about, you guessed it, the women’s suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Historical subject matter such as this is catnip to awards bodies, but would Suffragette live up to its high expectations?
Suffragette gives the audience a rather neatly packaged version of several events, some fictional and some historical, relating to the lengthy campaign for votes for women in the United Kingdom in the early years of the 1900s. The film’s protagonist, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a fictional character, presented to the audience as an example of the everyday London woman, married, a mother and working long hours in unsafe conditions at a vast laundry house. Maud is initially reluctant to rock the boat with regards to the equality fight, but through encouragement from colleagues and a desire for change, she becomes a foot soldier in the heat of the battle, rubbing shoulders throughout the narrative with real life figures such as Emily Davison (Natalie Press), Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). In Maud, the audience are shown a side to being a suffragette that is not perhaps the typical characterisation, merely a woman with sympathy for the cause who, by association and by the ostracising force of her family, is left with no other choice than to commit. By using this combination of fictional story telling with factual history interwoven, the filmmakers have achieved a narrative that boasts both classic cinematic tension and character arcs and historical integrity, giving the audience a story that both gives an important lesson on the key moments of the movement whilst not feeling too much like a mechanical reenactment. The film could be accused of trying to condense too much history in to the personal stories of just three of four suffragette women, but the more characters there are, the more an audience becomes detached from the piece, so I can forgive the filmmakers for that. However, I must admit to being, overall, left a little ambivalent as the end credits began to roll. Perhaps my expectations were too high given the stellar cast and the emotive topic, but, though Suffragette certainly entertained and engaged me throughout, I found that it didn’t profoundly move me in the way that I had anticipated. I believe the reason for this is that, above all else, I could see the cogs of the filmmaking and story telling turning more than I could lose myself in the narrative. I stated above that the film presents a neatly packaged version of events, and perhaps, given what I know was a lengthy, frustrating and incredibly hard fought fight, Suffragette just doesn’t dig deep enough in to the history of the women’s suffrage movement to provide a truly worthy and outstanding dramatisation.
Undeniably the greatest aspect of the film is its amazing cast. Carey Mulligan as protagonist Maud is the perfect choice for a character whose strength and determination grows as the narrative progresses, and the audience witness both a physical and emotional maturation by Mulligan as the extent of Maud’s involvement as a suffragette increases. Alongside Mulligan are Helena Bonham-Carter and Natalie Press as real life figures as Edith Ellyn and Emily Davison respectively. Whilst Bonham-Carter gives a strong and captivating performance as the determined activist Edith, one can’t help but feel that Press, though shining when she gets the chance, is somewhat sidelined amidst the multiple character story, which is a great shame considering Emily Davison’s infamous and fatal contribution to the movement. The film’s marketing team have been rather misleading in their heavy use of Meryl Streep as part of the advertising campaign, as whilst she is as commanding and memorable as one would expect her to be as Emmeline Pankhurst, the actress graces the screen for what must be a sum total of five minutes. Though people will argue about the screen time and development given to some characters and sacrificed for others, one thing that cannot be argued is that the quality of acting from leading ladies to one line extras is brilliant, and you become just as devoted to the individual characters within the film as you do to the overall narrative cause.
Overall, Suffragette is a film that will join the pantheon of other solid British period pieces, but perhaps just a rung lower than the truly great examples that the genre has to offer. The picture pretty much does what it says on the tin without taking too many risks, but with the quality of acting talent on display the audience feel comfortable in its presence and are given a perfectly satisfying one hundred minutes. Importantly, the film finishes on the right note of celebration for the trail blazers of the early twentieth century, yet has the awareness to contain a message that the battle for female equality is far from won. As far as awards season is concerned, I imagine that several of the acting performances alone will keep Suffragette’s name in the media right through to Oscars night next February.