Imagine Fast and Furious 7. Then imagine the exact opposite. Now you’ve probably got a good idea of what Suffragette is like.
One hundred years ago in England, women still didn’t have the right to vote. They had tried the Martin Luther King approach of peaceful protest and campaigning, but to no avail. So, they became the Black Panthers of gender equality, smashing windows and blowing up letterboxes.
They called themselves the Suffragettes. They were like The Avengers, but with aprons instead of capes.
A more accurate title for this film would have been ‘The Reluctant Suffragette’. Carey Mulligan plays Maud, a woman who spends three quarters of the runtime denying that she is part of the movement. She’s no fanatic, instead circumstances surround Maud to the point where she becomes a suffragette in everything but name.
This is a clever move by screenwriter Abi Morgan. Morgan’s previous outing was the inexplicably horrible The Iron Lady, which asked us to sympathize with a psychotic monster, and was one of the most sexist films (albeit, against men) ever released.
It would have been easy for Suffragette to walk a similar path, and it often veers close to that territory. Maud’s husband (Ben Whishaw) is a weak sheep, and her boss (Geoff Bell, the bad guy in Green Street) is cartoonishly cruel.
Luckily, this schlock approach is avoided, first, by having Maud never commit dramatically to the cause. She is reasonable and well tempered, a hard-worker and good mother. To return to the civil rights movement comparison, she’s the Rosa Parks of this film. It’s a subtle and endearing performance by Mulligan, who has finally found a role that suits her (instead of ruining movies like The Great Gatsby).
The other winning feature is Brendan Gleeson’s detective. He is there to keep the peace, and, even though he doesn’t believe the suffragettes are wrong, must stop the chaos they cause. It would’ve been easy to have a maniacal male cackle as he thwarted the female struggle, but Gleeson’s performance is fantastic. He can deliver lines like ‘You are nothing,’ without seeming sexist at all. He’s like a kindly schoolteacher who must reluctantly yet effectively punish his favourite pupils.
Surprisingly, there’s no celebration to be had, no moment where you punch the air in joy. Perhaps that is to say that the struggle isn’t over, that the inequality didn’t end with the vote.
Regardless of the overarching politics, Suffragette is an engaging and powerfully downbeat film. It could’ve been a lot worse than it is; luckily, it’s a lot better than it should be.
And thank god Meryl Streep is only in it for 25 seconds.