Suffragette dramatizes an important moment in history when the women’s rights movement made a dramatic impression on the British public. It’s useful and informative as a history lesson…yet I felt a certain distance from it and I’m not sure why. It can’t be the casting, which is spot-on: Carey Mulligan is ideal as a vulnerable young woman who has slaved away in a London laundry since she was 7. Her husband also works there and they manage to get by, raising a young son. When another worker becomes involved in the fight for women’s votes, led by Emmaline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep, in a cameo) Mulligan is reluctant to become involved. Like so many others in her position she doesn’t want to rock the boat and jeopardize her job, tough as it is.
At this point, women have been fighting for years to be recognized, and nothing has worked. The government and the press patronize, ridicule, or simply ignore them. Mrs. Pankhurst urges her followers to engage in civil disobedience, which leads to shocking incidents of violence by the police at otherwise peaceful demonstrations.
Mulligan’s empathetic performance draws us in, along with Anne-Marie Duff and a surprisingly subdued Helena Bonham Carter. The great Brendan Gleeson plays a tough-minded police inspector who follows his own moral code.
Perhaps my reaction to Suffragette, which starts out so strong, is a result of its dramatic trajectory. It’s a bleak story that goes from bad to worse, and that makes it tough to watch. Screenwriter Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron do right by their subject but this may be a pyrrhic victory as far as audiences are concerned.
The period detail is superb, although I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that almost everything must have been painted in place with computer graphics: the London streets, the vintage cars, the buildings, the crowds. This isn’t supposed to be a distraction, but in the new era of visual effects, it is.
Suffragette is suffused with good intentions but it kept me at arm’s length.