ABI MORGAN, WHO wrote the screenplay of this earnest, well-intentioned movie, also recently wrote two other earnest, well-intentioned movies: “Maggie” and “The Invisible Woman”.
Like her most recent creation, “Suffragette”, she has to be lauded and encouraged along with director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), production designer Alice Normington (“Brideshead Revisited”), executive producer Nicky Bower (“Selma”) and the six other female co- producers, set decorator Barbara Herman- Skelding (“The Riot Club”) and all the other women involved in this extraordinary gathering of female talent… in what is a notoriously male industry.
Morgan’s story focuses in on the private life of a hardworking laundry worker, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Maud is a wife (to Sonny, performed by Ben Wishaw), a mother and, as expected of her, the caring center of her little happy, if impoverished, family. She is also, legally, a piece of property, and judged by the status quo (men) as being both emotionally and intellectually incapable of earning the right to vote.
Like most other women at the time, she was aware, if indifferent, to the spreading suffragette movement (when asked why she would want the vote, she struggles to answer…finally admitting that she really doesn’t know). But, caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, she witnesses a scene of thuggish police brutality against a group of women attending a peace rally to hear the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (a nominally present Meryl Streep…basically lending her imprimatur to the proceedings). Whether she wants to or not, she has become ‘involved’.
The movie traces the spread of the movement as it veers from (generally ignored) peaceful protest to increasingly violent urban terrorism through the life of Maud. Her own life morphs from that of abused worker/mother/wife to one of insurrectionist/jailbird/freedom fighter. In the cause of ‘the cause’ she loses her respectability and her family, and gains instead her self-respect and the beginnings of equality for women.
As you’d expect, Carey Mulligan’s performance is nuanced and powerful (as are the performances of all the key actors including a nice turn by Helena Bonham Carter, the great great grand-daughter to Herbert Asquith, the British PM who denied women the vote and an nice understated performance by Brendan Gleeson)
Director Gavron’s movie is engaging and efficient: every scene drives the plot forward; there’s not a wasted moment in the movie. Indeed, it’s a great movie to show to schoolchildren, as a much needed reminder that the vote – so often ignored and taken for granted – was a hard earned right…the result of enormous personal sacrifices and loss.
The problem with it all is that it’s all a bit simplistic.
The idea that drives the action is Pankhurst’s rallying cry to her supporters, “Deeds matter more than words” (though only through words – the news coverage of Emily Davison’s suicide at the Epsom derby- did the movement succeed).
But at a time when this idea applies equally to Isis or Hezbollah or any nutter with a bomb in search of martyrdom, you wonder where the philosophical divide lies that infuses action with its moral dimension; or is morality a sham construct of an entrenched status quo, which at times must be cast aside? We never really get to ‘know’ Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) as we briefly follow her through the heaving crowds at the derby. But just what turns within the human heart to drive you to suicide (whether by horse or by bomb)? At what point does the shift between the selfish need (“I need a better life”) and the selfless action (“what matters for me matters for all”) become the spark that sets a revolution in play?
Don’t look to “Suffragette” to try to resolve these deeper issues.
I am not trying to rewrite Ms Morgan’s enjoyable, well-intentioned movie. But without any deeper probing, “Deeds matter more than words” is just a trite and shallow cliché. It really should be the beginning of a conversation that a richer movie could have delivered. Instead we’re left with “Suffragette”: enjoyable, well intentioned and, in Hollywood’s macho world, an important step forward.
But in the end, superficial and underwhelming.