There’s something gloriously endearing about a traditional, romanticised English drama. Generally a huge hit across the Atlantic, we’ve seen the likes of The King’s Speech, Philomena, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything nominated for Academy Awards (the former winning the top prize) in recent years. The latest of which is Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, written by the gifted screenwriter Abi Morgan. But sadly this title feels more akin to the latter’s The Iron Lady – never quite elevating itself above being a generic, BBC-like drama that has taken a riveting, powerful and immensely important story, and told it in a distinctly disengaging way.
Though based, of course, on real events, our story centres on a fictitious creation – with Carey Mulligan portraying Maud Watts, a working-class mother, working at the same drab factory she’s been at since she was a child, longing for the day to end and she can get away from her repulsive boss and see her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son. She becomes beguiled and intrigued by the ever-increasing Suffragette movement, and in particular that of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who is tirelessly campaigning for women to have the vote, alongside several likeminded, impassioned women such as Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and the inspirational ringleader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). But as Maud becomes embroiled in this new crusade, she garners the unwanted attention of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), and in turn risks losing the one thing she holds most dear: her family.
It goes without saying that Mulligan steals the show with a remarkably sincere, nuanced turn that illuminates the screen throughout – but don’t be fooled by Streep’s inclusion in the marketing campaign for this endeavour, as let’s just say this one can go down as being a mere cameo role for the venerable performer. In spite of Mulligan’s strong, leading performance however, the film may have benefited from casting her as a real person, and delving into this set of events through the eyes of somebody who actually lived it. There’s a lack of emotional investment in this tale, and perhaps having a fictional creation as the lead is behind that. Not that we necessarily need to have somebody real in order to immerse ourselves in this tale and become compelled by it, but given the array of incredible women who risked everything for this cause, it could have worked better had we chosen one of them and personally recounted their story. Perhaps the inspirational, militant activist Emily Davison, for instance. As for the male characters, they are not painted out as being pantomime villains in this piece, given a sense of humanity and vulnerability – and though you fervently disagree with their actions, they’re very real creations at the same time. Though perhaps that’s just down to hiring the affable pair of Whishaw and Gleeson in the two leading roles. It sort of comes with the territory.
However the film ends on an underwhelming note, with a finale that feels all too abrupt. Suffragette is one of those movies where the words that appear on the screen just prior to the closing credits, to inform us all of what happens after our story ends, would actually make a better movie, as we question why we stop when we do. We have all of the setup, but sadly, we’re without any of the much-needed pay-off.