Some of the best historical dramas of recent years have made the past rhyme with the present. Last year, Selma was frequently, and rightly, praised for its contemporary resonance. Though set in the Cold War, Bridge of Spies quietly and insistently makes a case for a return to a notion of American values that doesn’t tolerate torture and abuses of power. On television, shows like Mad Men and The Knick connect the prejudices of the past with the present. Seemingly every other headline suggests we could use a film drawing a direct line between women’s struggle to earn the right to vote in the early part of the 20th century — a right earned in the U.S. less than a hundred years ago and one earned in full in Great Britain even more recently — and the contemporary political climate.
Unfortunately, it needs a better one than Suffragette, a British drama that views the British suffragette movement through the eyes of a newly politicized factory worker named Maud (Carey Mulligan). Written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) and directed by Sarah Gavron (Village at the End of the World) the film doesn’t shy away from drawing connections between the past and the present. Set in 1912 London, it depicts the ingrained sexism and sexual, financial, and physical peril experienced by women of the period. It’s not hard to see the through line between, for instance, the boss who takes sexual advantage of his workers and the incidents of sexual harassment that linger like a bad hangover from that period today. The film also smartly portrays the sacrifices women like Maud had to make to earn a voice in the polls. Over the course of the film, Maud finds her job and family imperiled by her choice to speak out and Mulligan, good as usual, plays the part with a mix of weariness and commitment. They’re asking for what’s obviously right, yet they have to resort to acts of destruction before they can be heard.
Yet for all the righteousness of the suffragette cause and the adversity its supporters face — including imprisonment and force-feeding — Suffragette has a hard time making its story dramatic. In spite of Mulligan’s best efforts, Maud seems more like a composite than a character. She gets a speech about why the vote matters, but the film really portrays why it matters to her, beyond depicting a bunch of indignities visited on her. The personal is always political, but she’s more a figure to illustrate a political point than a person.
A fine supporting cast joins Mulligan, sometimes too briefly. Helena Bonham-Carter plays a pharmacist and self-identified soldier in the fight. Brendan Gleeson has a few scenes as a police officer who occasionally seems a bit moved by the women he’s charged with trying to suppress, but little comes of his character. And Meryl Streep, despite her prominent placement in the film’s advertising, makes only a brief appearance as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. She gets about as much screen time as Jesus in Ben-Hur and serves much the same function.
Suffragette‘s less a story than a parade of dreariness and disappointment, set in a version of Edwardian London so gray it looks virtually post-apocalyptic. (Even if the women win the right to vote, they’ll still be stuck in an unrelenting hellscape). For all the screaming and close-quarters handheld photography, Gavron brings little sense of urgency to the film. It’s history brought to life, but just barely.