There’s a certain struggle that needs to be had when a film portrays a contemporary issue through the lens of a historical event. These are often timely films, much like Straight Outta Compton, that show a current injustice and how it has remained so since before and during the time reflected in the film. The struggle comes from balancing inspiration, character, and emotional impact while also refraining from accusing the entirety of white people for racism, men for refusing women rights, or the Japanese and Germans for WWII, especially since it is so easy to just cast the blame on everyone indiscriminately. Suffragette, a film that focuses on women’s voting rights in England at the beginning of the 20th century, means well, but loses far too much of its struggle to be more than just an enlightening look at a dark historical time for England.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a fictional character based on a combination of other real-life suffragette’s who fought for women’s rights. Maud is a dedicated worker, mother, and wife, but after circumstances lead her to testify to Parliament in order to secure voting rights, she soon becomes an exile to her family and community, as they look down on her as a rebel and terrorist.
What makes Suffragette really special is that it is a film directed by a woman (Sarah Gavron), written by a woman (Abi Morgan), and starring a great cast of tremendous actresses. Mulligan is exemplary as always, further establishing herself as a versatile, graceful actress who infuses a special kind of tenderness in all of her roles. Helena Bonham Carter is the most effective supporting cast member as Edith Ellyn, a doctor and self-proclaimed “soldier,” who along with her husband, pushes forward the cause through “deeds not words.” Edith is the one who decides that words are no longer enough for men to understand; as Maud puts it “war is the only language men understand.”
But what about Meryl Streep, who appears top-billed, on the poster, and preaches rousing words in the trailer? Well, that’s about all you get of her as she is used as purely a marketing tool to attach another powerful name to the project. Her entire role can pretty much be seen in the trailer as she plays an illusive name dropped constantly throughout the entire film, but her face is hardly seen. She plays the real-life Emmeline Pankhurst—a pioneer for women’s rights. Her presence is so commanding on screen that you have to scratch your head and wonder why more wasn’t used of her.
Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson make up for the male portion of the cast. Whishaw as the cruel, misunderstanding husband to Mulligan who looks down on her attempts and assumes that equality means women are actually getting better treatment than they deserve. Gleeson, who plays Inspector Arthur Steed—the man tasked with hunting down the suffragettes—is never portrayed as an evil being. He is, like Maud, portrayed as someone who is doing their job, in this case it is a cat-and-mouse chase that adds an engaging dynamic to the movie.
Much like Dallas Buyers Club, another film that highlights an important issue, Suffragette crafts intriguing characters and introduces a serious problem, but its ending comes out of nowhere, its characters are left without any sense of closure whatsoever, and all superfluous information is explained in a pre-credits summary. Since the majority of the characters are not real, this might be easily excused, but after spending almost two hours with these women, one would think we would get some sort of explanation about where they ended up. One character’s husband gives their child up for adoption after she becomes a suffragette, but we never find out if the kid is returned at the end. The big climactic moment that supposedly would change things once and for all ends in such a rushed way that if you were to blink you’d probably miss it. It is little details like these that make the closing moments of Suffragette feel much less impactful than it should have been.
Suffragette means well, and it does an excellent job at highlighting the oppression and inequality women have suffered for far too long while never condemning anybody in a harsh way. There are just so many missed opportunities that—if they had been capitalized on—would have hit as hard as the bombs the suffragettes put in mailboxes.