Suffragette is a British period drama about the women's right movement of the early 20th Century, in particular focusing on a troop of passionate advocates played by Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff.
A blend of fictitious characters and actual historical events, Suffragette hopes to shine a light on the suffering of women in the workforce, as well as contextualise the progress that has been made in the century since the events of the film. Set in London in 1912, the main character is a hard-working young woman named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), whose life comprises of long shifts at the local laundry and struggling to make ends meet.
When delivering a package for her abusive boss Benedict (Samuel West), Maud is caught in a suffragette riot that includes Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and eventually she becomes involved with Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily (Natalie Press), two militant suffragettes who will stop at nothing to have their message heard.
At its core, Suffragette is a really great film; the acting is consistently excellent across the board, with Mulligan making for effective and compelling lead. Her arc sees Maud ostracized by her neighbours and flung into open rebellion against the system; not only does the screenplay allow this transition to take place gradually, Mulligan's performance hits each emotional beat to perfection. There are no shortage of "Oscar reel" moments, but one scene in an interrogation room shared with Brendon Gleeson made the hairs on my neck spring up.
Likewise, it was refreshing to see Helena Bonham Carter in a role that wasn't a kooky Tim Burton yarn. Her character of Edith is really unassuming at first, but develops into a hardened revolutionary who carries herself with authority and sincerity.
That being said, not everything about Suffragette is so positive. If you've seen any posters or trailers for the film, you're probably expecting Meryl Streep to play a pivotal role; don't be fooled however, as this couldn't be any further from the truth. Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, the historical figure who spearheaded the British suffragette movement during the 1910's, but despite the significance of her role, Streep is essentially a glorified cameo.
Yep, she only sticks around for a few key scenes, delivering a stirring speech atop a balcony ("I'd rather be a rebel than a slave!") before being hurriedly ushered stage right, both literally and metaphorically. Not only does this make the film feel a little misleading, but also as if the filmmakers were reaching to include Pankhurst because how could they not? I was expecting a more pivotal role for Streep, and the film just ticked the box and left it at that (although I wouldn't be surprised if she still got an Oscar nomination like Judi Dench did for her cameo as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love)
Furthermore, on a technical level, I found the direction to be a bit wayward at times. Director Sarah Gavron employs a lot of shaky handheld camerawork for this film, at times combining that with close-ups and otherwise conventional dialogue scenes. I think it may have been to illustrate instability and social uprising, but I found the persistent shakiness to be distracting and even irritating. I prayed for the moment that the camera would just sit still; it does happen, particularly around Brendon Gleeson's police captain Steed (again, matching my theory of the stability of order vs. the instability of rebellion) and these scenes are a marked improvement.
A few plot strands go unresolved come the end too; the film delves into Maud's fractured relationship with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their five-year-old child, but withdraws from tying together that arc in the final third when the focus is firmly on the overarching political machinations at work.
The same can be said for Maud herself; I understand that she, and many of the other characters, are fictitious and don't require the conventional summary a biopic offers before the end credits, but I still wanted to know what happened to her in the end! At the time, I didn't know otherwise; I assumed Mulligan was portraying a real person, and was invested in how her story ended. Instead the film strives to paint a picture of women's voting rights in the century since, and forgets to actually resolve the characters we come to care about.
The Verdict: 7/10
The central themes at work in Suffragette still bear relevance today, and should be seen on this basis alone. The formulaic plot is elevated by stellar work from Mulligan, Gleeson and Bonham Carter whilst some shaky camerawork and an underwhelming conclusion steers focus away from the characters and back towards the politics, for better and for worse.
Suffragette is currently screening at the BBC British Film Festival. It receives a wide cinema release across Australia on December 26.