Suffragette: Don’t Lean on Me, Man, by David Bax
Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette opens with a sequence detailing the backbreaking work of women in an industrial laundry in 1912 London, over which plays a series of audio snippets in which faceless, nameless men loudly declare their arguments against allowing the female population to vote (for example, their interests are already represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands, apparently). It’s a thoroughly unsubtle drawing of the movie’s political and moral themes and also an artless one. Unfortunately, it sets the course for the movie we’re about to see unfold.
Suffragette tells the story of Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan), one of the aforementioned laundresses, who reluctantly, then with increasing zeal, involves herself in the London suffrage movement. Though it estranges her from her husband (Ben Whishaw) and son and places her under the ruthless scrutiny of the head of an anti-suffrage government task force, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), Maude finds that she is less and less able to accept the voiceless, powerless existence into which she and half of the British population were born.
Gavron and cinematographer Eduard Grau offer us ham-fisted visual metaphors from the start. Right after we meet the women in the laundry, we are introduced to their foreman (Geoff Bell), a snarling villain who observes from an office that overlooks the floor from on high, a towering representative of the patriarchy. Later, these same women are shot through a chain link gate, not so subtly emphasizing their imprisoned nature. Gavron’s insistence on framing her protagonists claustrophobically, along with a needlessly restless camera and a washed out color palette, combine to make Suffragette visually dull.
At least Gavron has her cast working for her. Mulligan and Gleeson could hold the screen even if they were the only things on it; it would be a difficult task to find two actors who are more interesting to simply watch talking. Whishaw, Romola Garai, Helena Bonham Carter and, briefly, Meryl Streep are also among Suffragette’s group of heavy hitters.
Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan are at their best when forging connections from the period setting (replete with commendable costume and production design) to the present. Mostly, the suggestion comes in the form of machinery and technology. Early on, we see the London streets clogged with cars and buses, a not unfamiliar site to modern urban residents. Shortly thereafter, Steed’s squad are introduced through their use of photographic surveillance. This governmental invasion of privacy is as unsettling and relevant today as it is during the reign of George V. Steeds returns again and again to such photos in his quest to snuff out the suffragettes, making this the film’s most cohesive theme.
Regrettably, the rest of the movie fails to live up to that one chief strength. Most of it, in fact, is the opposite. Instead of feeling immediate and vital, its blunt functionality makes it bloodless and hermetic. It was just last year that Ava Duvernay’s Selma provided a new standard for this type of historical retelling. That film burned with urgency, steadfastly refusing to disappear into its own past. But where Selma gave us rallying cries, Suffragette gives us weak bromides like, “Never surrender. Never give up the fight.” It’s hard to get excited about a movie whose motto could just as well be that of a Pee Wee football team.