Directed by Sarah Gavron
Opens October 23
Fusing the civil rights picture with British miserablism, Sarah Gavron’s grinding Suffragette offers very little room to breathe. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a wife and mother who works at a worse-than-Dickens East End laundry, run by a mustachioed rapist. Her interest in voting rights is sparked by a group of suffragettes who smash a shop window and before long, Maud’s testifying in front of Lloyd George about the appalling conditions of her life and strategically snipping telegraph wires with the sisterhood. However, as her activism increases, her personal life suffers immensely: husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw) is not down with the movement, so he throws her out of their home and gives their son away to a wealthy family. Eventually, Maud’s reduced to living in an abandoned church and surviving on donated scraps of food.
The final act of civil disobedience Suffragette documents is grimmest of all: Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the 1913 Derby, which was caught on film by press covering the event. While it would be wrong to expect a buddy comedy ethos in a film recreating so serious a historical moment, more often than not it feels as though Maud is simply being pulled along for the ride, singlemindedly following through a different but no less punishing destiny than if she were still a laundress.
There’s never a sense that she’s forged a real bond with the women she’s collaborating with, or that she has any ideas about ideology (socialist, anarchist, or otherwise) other than a generic idea of equality. Although women’s right to vote was a completely radical concept at the time–which all of Maud’s suffering goes to show—the real suffragettes, including the one Maud was based on, were tuned into a larger radical, political conversation occurring at that time. But instead of an Emma Goldman, we’re given another fundamentally uncomplicated female martyr, made even more beautiful through her punishment.
This groundlessness is unintentionally echoed in Gavron’s direction, which has the power to mangle even the simplest moments through bizarre framing, extremely shaky handheld camera, and excessive cutting, clashing techniques that are often employed simultaneously. It’s too intentional to be called sloppy, yet too conventional to be called innovative or experimental. In a quiet but crucial scene where Maud tries to gauge Sonny’s acceptance of her nascent political awareness while they’re lying in bed together, the sense of space in their tiny bedroom—let alone the chemistry between the actors—is completely destroyed by this half-Dardennne, half-Ridley Scott aesthetic. Nearly 100 years after the achievement of voting rights for Ladies (all women came after), this isn’t the testament to our competency that it should be.