Review: Carey Mulligan is the highlight of a familiar feeling ‘Suffragette’

TELLURIDE – There is a lot about “Suffragette” that shouldn”t be rare in the movie business.  A film with a female director (Sarah Gavron), a female screenwriter (Abi Morgan) and two female producers (Alison Owen, Faye Ward) should be the norm and not the exception.  Unfortunately, it”s not.  As star Meryl Streep noted during the film”s Q&A on Saturday, in 2014 women directed just 1% of movies released by Hollywood studios.  That fact, along with a recent resurgence equal rights for women in the either has made “Suffragette” something of a cause célèbre at Telluride this year.  If only the actually movie was something to celebrate as well.

Set in 1912, the film takes place at a key moment in British history.  After 50 years of peaceful protest Suffrage societies led by the Women”s Social and Political Union (WSPU) decide only more aggressive action can spur the government to grant women the right to vote.  This included a window-smashing campaign in May of that year where supporters threw bricks into the storefronts in London”s shopping district.  That's also the precise moment where Gavron and Morgan decide to introduce our heroine, the fictional Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), to the movement.

A true working class woman, Maud has toiled in a massive laundry facility since the age of 7.  It's an environment where women work a third longer than the men and the cleaning chemicals they use often lead to shorter life spans.  The film insinuates Maud's also been sexually harassed by her boss (or worse), but without proper schooling this sort of work is all she believes she can support her family with.  Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), who also works at the laundry, and her young son are the only joys in her life.  Things take a turn, however, when she”s asked to fill in for a co-worker testifying about working conditions before Parliament.  

The testimony was expected to help convince the Prime Minister to support a voting bill, but the ministers decline to move it forward which leads to a protest by Maud and other suffragettes in front of the Parliament building.  Maud ends up being arrested for the first time and, unable to bail herself out, spends a week in jail.  This greatly disturbs Sonny who was already uncomfortable with her public testimony.  Unable to stay away from the organization and participate in their activities, Maud suffers the consequences by pretty much losing everything she”s ever cared for in dramatic fashion.

As the ladies tactics become more radical they go from being under surveillance by Scotland Yard to being incessantly harassed by the police. Other characters also find themselves constantly being imprisoned such as Pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and real life historical figure Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), among others.  At one point, the government officially implements a program to force feed detainees who go on hunger strikes to protest their jail time (the actual “Cat and Mouse” act was even worse than what is depicted on screen).   

Keeping the cause afloat is their belief in WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), an inspirational speaker who spends much of her time in hiding to avoid arrest.  One night Pankhurst attempts to addresses her supporters secretly, but the police quickly arrive to disrupt the speech.  While Pankhurst escapes, Maud and her new friends are once again taken into custody which becomes a repetitive theme in the movie (and his historically accurate).

Eventually, a number of the women have to drop out due to health reasons (or in one case, Ellyn”s normally supportive husband steps in to preventing his ailing wife from unduly killing herself).  Their particular group down to just a wee few, Maud and Davison formulate a plan to get the attention of King George and the press on hand during a very public horse race.  History tells what tragedy occurred that day and how it helped the cause in the long run.

While this may sound compelling on paper, much of it plays as a familiar period drama you”ve seen either on television or the big screen countless times before. Despite the numerous melodramatic moments that become increasingly hard to believe could occur to just one person, Morgan isn”t able to make Maud more interesting than her historical counterparts.  If the movie followed the lives of Pankhurst or focused solely on Davison the film's storyline would be much more compelling.

All the actresses do their best with the material, but only Mulligan truly transcends its limitations.  In particular, she gives her character a genuine curiosity at the beginning of the film that justifies her initial interest in the cause and, later on, painfully conveys the horrifying treatment Maud receives being force-fed in prison.  Even still, you”re hardly invested in her story at the end of the film and, of course, that's problematic.

Most of the male roles in the film are given mostly arch characterizations, but Breendan Gleeson, as a sympathetic police detective only doing his job, and the aforementioned Whishaw do their best to make their parts as three-dimensional as possible.  

The film certainly looks fantastic thanks to cinematographer Eduard Grau, production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Jane Petrie.  Alexandre Desplat”s score tries to give the film some much-needed energy at times, but it”s certainly not one of his more memorable compositions.

With a number of major candidates running for president displaying little understanding of what true equal rights are or the campaign to stop girls from getting an education in third world countries (as depicted in “He Called Me Malala”) you can absolutely make a case that a film like “Suffragette” may provide suitable inspiration to young freedom fighters around the globe.   We just wish the story gave the suffragette movement the true moment in the spotlight it deserves.

“Suffragette” opens in limited release on Oct. 23.