Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: "Suffragette"

In America we think of the suffragette movement in glowing, benevolent terms. Our public consciousness invokes halcyon memories of a non-violent, high-minded debate in which brave women who advocated for the right to vote were subjected to little more than frowning disapproval and comments about their diminished prospects for marriage, with jail time for a hardened few.

In actuality the movement took decades and included police brutality, mass arrests, hunger strikes, forced feedings and the separation of mothers from children. “Suffragette” is an attempt to shine a light on the darker, grittier side of the crusade, focusing specifically on a small group of working-class British women who kicked the push for the vote into high gear in their country.

It’s a well-intentioned film, which jumps through the tropes of the ‘inspiring historical drama’ genre 1-2-3. It takes miserly few chances with its story and characters. The actors are an impressive lot and the production values are fine, but it’s a rather dour affair with a scarcity of surprises.

Carey Mulligan plays a familiar type of protagonist: the indifferent youngster who falls in with the rebellious crowd, gets caught up by circumstance and ends up as hardest of the hardcore.

Her character is entirely made up, as are all the others but two: Meryl Streep has a bit role (two or three scenes) as Emmeline Pankhurst, the real-life founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, who essentially operates as the leader-in-exile, flitting from place to place in secrecy for fear of arrest. And Natalie Press plays Emily Davison, a tertiary figure who only becomes important late in the proceedings.

Mulligan is Maud Watts, a 24-year-laundress who keeps her head down in 1912 London. She started working at 12 and was made forewoman at 20. Her factory is a brutish sweat shop, complete with a piggish manager (Geoff Bell) who sees taking liberties with the young girls as a perk of the job. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is a kindly but sheepish fellow who also works there. They have an adorable scamp of a son, are desperately poor but essentially happy.

The government is taking testimony from working women about getting the vote, and Maud is conscripted at the last minute to fill in for a fiery co-worker (Anne-Marie Duff) who has to demur. Her plain-spoken words seemingly move the chief official, but needless to say more challenges await.

She makes the rounds befriending the suffragette crew, including a wealthy benefactor (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a female doctor who’s been jailed nine times and repeatedly urges more militant action, including breaking shop windows and blowing up mail boxes.

(Fun fact: Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith, who was Prime Minister during this time and a noted opponent of voting rights for women. Take that, great-grandpa!)

Brendan Gleeson has a nice turn as Steed, a cunning police inspector who outfoxes the suffragettes for a time. He views Maud as just an impressionable young woman and targets her for recruitment as an informer.

Things go on as you might expect. Maud is shocked when peaceful channels prove fruitless, agrees to more strident acts, is jailed and disgraced, her husband is mortified and warns her not to defy him again, the heroines make quotable pronouncements off the cuff, etc.

“You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable!” goes a typical refrain.

I didn’t dislike “Suffragette,” but it feels so workmanlike and even drab at times. Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) might have been better served by focusing on actual historical figures instead of concocting a bunch of make-believe folks. These characters feel less like people and more conduits for a message, however noble it might be.

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