SUFFRAGETTE: An Important Part of History Suffers from a Standard Retelling

by Frank Calvillo

Going into Suffragette, it was hard not to recall one of the opening scenes in the Disney classic Mary Poppins, where the great Glynis Johns sang “Sister Suffragette” as a tribute to those who were at that time fighting to obtain votes for women. I must admit it was always a part of the film I never particularly cared for. This was due in part to the fact that not only could I not relate to it, but also because it greatly paled in comparison to the magic of the rest of the film.

Now many years later, its doubtless the song would hold new meaning for me after watching the historical drama Suffragette because even if the number was hopelessly Disney-fied, the spirit of the cause rings truer than ever.

In Suffragette, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works as a laundress in turn-of-the-century working class London. Working since the age of seven, Maud has never known, or expected, anything else and has made herself a life of contentment with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son George (Adam Michael Dodd). When her friend and co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) joins the ever-growing suffragette movement, Maud finds herself joining as well. Acting alongside Violet and physician Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), and inspired by the words of the movement’s leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud becomes one of the greatest participants in the fight to give women the vote.

Pretty quick into the film, it becomes obvious that Suffragette isn’t going to be the best it can be. This is mainly because the film hits all the tropes you would think a historically-soaked movie of this sort would. There’s the obligatory moments showing how hard things are, the scenes of beatings, the looks of disapproval, all of which never let Suffragette come off as anything other than a history lesson told in cinematic form.

You can tell almost immediately when something bad is coming in Suffragette. When Maud loses her family, when she acts out against her employer, when Edith develops a disease; all of these moments are so loudly signaled, it’s almost deja vu. Every twist and turn in Suffragette, including its action/thriller-like finale, is so methodically planned out that any hopes for moments filled with truth and heart are quickly dashed.

Despite all this though, it is worth seeing Suffragette, if for no other reason than to pay tribute to the very women who gave everything for something they believed in. In fact, if there’s one thing the film does well, it is to show how the lack of voting rights affected women from ALL walks of life and how, regardless of class, each woman was an indentured servant in her own way. The suffragette movement was a part of history which has always been acknowledged, yet never really given its due. There’s no question it deserved some sort of cinematic recognition.

Maybe if the characters (and the performances they inspire the cast to give) weren’t such a mixed bag, Suffragette would have felt like a stronger effort.

Maud seems like an eternal audience member who takes far too long to come off as invested in what is happening around her. When she does, though, her suffering and devotion contain a silent will that proves unshakeable. Without question, her best moment remains the interrogation scene (expertly delivered by Mulligan) in which she strongly proclaims: “We’re half the human race. You can’t lock us all up.”

Brendan Gleeson, as a chief inspector, seems to exist simply because the film needs a main heavy, while Carter continuously seems to be reaching for something higher than the script’s limitations, but is never given enough time to actually register her character. Meanwhile, Duff and Whishaw truly shine in roles which brilliantly showcase their versatility as screen actors, even if those roles deserve more room to breathe than they’re given.

In what amounts to little more than a glorified cameo than an actual supporting role, Streep’s turn does what it’s meant to do. The character of Emmeline Pankhurst haunts the film with various photos and quotes of hers floating throughout the proceedings.

It made me want to know more about this mysterious figure who created such a powerful movement that it literally changed the world. That’s a story that I’m sure is nothing but compelling. It’s not that the one on screen isn’t, but it’s far from being the one to best represent such an important part of history.

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