Suffragette: A Near-Miss

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024