Thursday, 17 December 2015
To bastardise the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert, it is not what a film is about but how it is about it. The inverse of that philosophy could be applied to Suffragette, a film that for all its importance and ambition is commendable more for its intent than its execution.
For although well-intentioned, Suffragette lacks the fire in the belly which drove its protagonists to break the law and fight the power. Hand-held cinematography is about as radical as Sarah Gavron's period drama-history lesson -- about the British suffragette movement's fight for women's voting rights -- gets, though it is well served by Carey Mulligan's central performance.
She plays Maud, a 24-year-old wife and mother who has spent her entire life in the laundry where she works; it's where her mother worked before her, and where, from the age of 7, she's had to wash and iron, day-in and day-out, as well as endure the sexual advances of her employer.
But with the arrival of Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) comes a new friend and a glimpse of something more. It's 1912, and the suffragette movement is becoming increasingly more active -- with the encouragement of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a brief cameo) -- in its push for women's voting rights. Violet is a suffragette and quietly encourages Maud to become involved.
Meetings lead to protests which leads to arrest, and although her husband (Ben Whishaw) insists she be done with this nonsense, a fire has been lit in Maud; slowly fanned by her new found sisters and their push for equality. That flame isn't just fueled by anger but by hope. But hoping and wishing doesn't win battles, and Maud soon learns that the fight has to be taken to the establishment with no time for niceties.
Some viewers, particularly those born in a post-feminist world, may be shocked by the level of entrenched sexism, and the violence -- meted out by both sides -- committed to maintain or destroy the status quo. It's when the film, and Maud, fires up that we catch glimpses of what Suffragette could have been.
But no matter how committed Maud, or Mulligan, is, Suffragette never rises above solid film making. It's far too polite when, like its heroines, it should be kicking and screaming.