The problem with historical "issue" movies is that everyone already knows who won, which can promote a certain retrospective smugness. ("Silly Edwardians! How could they really think that granting women the vote would be a disaster?") To create a compelling story instead of an opportunity for self-congratulation, the filmmakers need to immerse us in the historical context; to show us why the controversy was a controversy, and perhaps how it still resonates today.
Lincoln and Selma achieved that with a tight, unsentimental focus on leaders and their strategy — essentially, both were period procedurals. With Suffragette, director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) take a different tack. Set in 1912, the year that Britain's suffragettes began turning to violent protest, it concerns not movement leaders but "foot soldiers" (as the hand-holding introductory text tells us). Meryl Streep plays famous firebrand Emmeline Pankhurst, but her screen time amounts to a few minutes of speechifying in a plummy accent. Her only function in the film is to inspire militancy in our fictional protagonist, 24-year-old laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).
Focusing on working-class women instead of their more privileged counterparts offers a fresh view of the suffragette movement and, for a while, that choice serves the film well. Anyone who thinks the movement was driven by pampered middle-class wives with political aspirations will get a reality check when Maud offers her halting testimony to a parliamentary committee. Her tale of hard labor from an early age, minimal schooling, occupational hazards and low pay might remind young viewers of District 12 from The Hunger Games — it has a material urgency that history lessons normally lack. And Mulligan sells the monologue with beautiful thoughtfulness, showing us a young woman just starting to realize she might have options beyond diligent toil and resignation.
But Suffragette never achieves quite that degree of immediacy again. While the scenes of street violence and prison life are kinetic and harrowing, a strong narrative arc is lacking, and the characters remain underdeveloped. Anne-Marie Duff brings grit to the role of the worker who radicalizes Maud, but we learn only bits of her own story. Helena Bonham Carter, as a bomb-making pharmacist, remains merely a sketch of determination. Brendan Gleeson plays a role designed to humanize the antagonists: a conflicted government investigator assigned to root out the militants. But, while we see his sympathy for Maud, we never learn much about his own attitudes toward women or how they might be changing.
Indeed, the film never goes far enough in pinpointing the cultural attitudes that made the fight for women's suffrage distinct from the fight for working-class men's suffrage — which was still ongoing at the time. Gavron milks the pathos of Maud's forced separation from her child, but the laws that give custody to her husband might as well be random, dystopian dictates from on high.
Of course, from Maud's perspective, they pretty much are. By focusing on a "foot soldier," the film sacrifices the wide view of a Lincoln for one person's story of empowerment. At times, it's a stirring story; at others, that note of retrospective smugness sneaks in. Too many details get swamped by Alexandre Desplat's swelling music, which constantly reminds us we're seeing an uplifting struggle for liberation. And the vitality of Maud and her fellow workers is lost in murky compositions that remind us this movie is serious, award-worthy business.
Suffragette's end titles remind us that in some parts of the world, women still can't vote. Viewers would do well to remember that — and perhaps, too, to give some thought to why suffrage still matters, given that so many of those who take it for granted today don't use it. Nothing to be smug about there.