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Focus Features // PG-13 // October 23, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
The history of politics continue to shape our culture and our media in numerous ways. After large events and concepts change culture and become of our everyday routine, we can sometimes begin to forget about them. However, everything that goes to the margins almost always returns back to the center at some point. The Women's Suffrage Movement made a huge difference in the world. Much like many other movements, those who were courageous enough to fight for their rights deserve more than a minute in the spotlight. Suffragette does a lot of things right in giving this movement the modern attention, while keeping the story confined to a scope that works incredibly well in telling the story of a critical part in human history.
After trying to peacefully protest for women's rights, the foot soldiers of the movement were ignored. Now, they're forced to grow militant personalities, as violence and destruction is the only method remaining to be heard. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a quiet individual, who has always obeyed the men in her life. When she's told of the rights that are possible by Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), she decides to break her silence and fight for equal treatment.
To be specific, Suffragette tells the story of the movement that took place in early 1900s England, but from the perspective of one woman. Some of my fellow critics were irked by the film's small scope, but I found it to be a breath of fresh air. Screenwriter Abi Morgan doesn't tackle too much by trying to capture an entire movement, but rather a moment in its time from the eyes of an ordinary person who decides to take part in something revolutionary. The story never leaves the environment that is this small group of women. A large scope remains in the background, as every action that this group makes feels important to the rights of women across Europe, and ultimately around the world. They stage a few different stunts in the public eye, which inevitably caused the police to turn violent. Their treatment by law enforcement is appropriately infuriating. Suffragette does exactly what it should: leave the audience rooting for these foot soldiers, and recognize their courage.
Given the cast, subject material, and release date, everything about this film feels like Oscar bait. However, judging a "book by its cover" (or more appropriately - a "film by its poster") isn't always accurate. In the case of director Sarah Gavron's feature, it surprisingly never feels like award bait. It has a purpose, and that isn't necessarily to win an Oscar, BAFTA, or Golden Glove. Rather, it wants to tell the story of the Suffrage Movement from a new perspective. It feels honest, as it doesn't feed off of trying to make us cry. The score blends into the picture, avoiding the swells that can often be found in award-hungry films. Unlike many other features that tackle the same subject matter, Suffragette doesn't make a villain out of men, but rather of the discriminatory ideals that existed in society. Some men are portrayed as sympathetic, as Edith's husband in particular is aiding in the movement. It's a subtle element that could be slightly more accented, although it's important to note that it's not promoting "good" or "bad guys." The cultural construction of gender that the government is enforcing is the enemy.
As previously mentioned, Suffragette isn't a tearjerker by any means. Instead, it aims to be inspirational. Regardless of whether we're talking about a movement pushing for equality among gender, race, class, or sexual orientation, our work is never done. The film's message tells us to keep fighting, which is displayed through a variety of different ways. Suffragette doesn't seek to fix all of society's discrimination against women within its running time, but shows that political progression moves in small steps. Morgan's screenplay approaches the content from a place that is both smart and meaningful, which is an incredible achievement for a political film. One of the screenplay's greatest strengths involves its subtlety, as it expresses what it wants us to know about Maud and the movement, rather than simply telling us over a voice-over.
Suffragette is primarily brought to life with Carey Mulligan's outstanding performance as Maud Watts. She displays an incredibly dynamic range from a quiet and ordinary woman to a strong political foot soldier, who is willing to sacrifice everything for the movement. She takes the subtleties in Morgan's screenplay and keeps them as underlying elements that are never over-exaggerated. Helena Bonham Carter also turns in an absorbing performance in the role of Edith Ellyn. Those who only believe that she can deliver big personalities in Tim Burton's films will realize that she's a great talent. This is a much more grounded performance that feels entirely convincing. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep is barely worth mentioning, as she has less than five minutes of screen time. Her character (Emmeline Pankhurst) is often referenced, although she only has a few lines to deliver, making it feel more like a cameo than a role.
Political films have never been my jam, but Suffragette proves to be an exception. If you're thinking that it's only Oscar bait, then you need to think again. Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan tell this story with a purpose other than winning awards. It's an inspirational feature that will hopefully motivate audiences to understand that the fight will never be over for equal rights as they relate to gender, class, race, or sexual orientation. While the filmmakers are tackling a monumental topic, the small scope makes the film more focused and personal. It portrays every life in this film as an important one, instead of as expendable foot soldiers. Carey Mulligan is absolutely exceptional and Helena Bonham Carter is both grounded and convincing. Meryl Streep is simply here as a recognizable face, as she's sadly underutilized. Otherwise, this is a strong political drama with something important to offer. Suffragette is inspirational, well-paced, and genuine. Highly recommended.