Suffragette – Review **

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DISCLAIMER: Many women fought and died so I could sit here and dislike this film. Do not take that right away.

Suffragette has been in the making for quite some time now. Director Sarah Gavron  (Brick Lane) has been incubating the project for about 10 years, and only 6 years ago she managed to get some producers on board, something incredible (and somewhat outrageous) when you realize this is a story that has not been told before. Yes. Sequel and Prequel Hollywood has so far ignored the suffragist and suffragette movement, probably because Votes for Women is not something they want to get behind, particularly in a year when women have been particularly vocal about patriarchy and misogyny in the industry. It’s also a film that’s hard to see outside its political context – you can either find yourself praising it to finally bring the story to the screen, and its choice to make a (fictional) “foot soldier” the protagonist, or you can confuse the film with the actual movement, and dare not insult it (or, if you’re the kind of person that prefers to be an “humanist” rather than a feminist, attack it as if it was the Gospel of Satan)

Basically, this one is a little bit hard to detach from the noise around it – probably because now it is scientifically proven that women’s voices are too complex for male minds – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-358320/What-dear.html (cringe cringe)

Story time: Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works hard at a laundry in East London. She’s married with Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and has a son. Her life kinda sucks, as she’s poor at the beginning of the 20th century England, and her boss is a sexually abusive prick. Still, she seems to be okay with it, until one day she happens to be just next to a shop window that gets smashed by those craaaazy suffragettes, who include work colleague Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Cut to Maud going to the pharmacy to realize pharmacist’s wife I-wasn’t-allowed-to-become-a-proper-doctor-but-I’m-smart-as-hell Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) is also a suffragette. Maud is then forced by the power of Fate and Lazy Screenwriting to deliver an emotional talk to PM Lloyd George, and realize that politicians are a bit feeble when it comes to actually doing something. She lands in prison (you guessed, by accident!) and is still not so sure about this Votes for Women thing be a good idea, but when Sonny takes away her son and expels her from home she becomes more Catholic than the Pope, and commits the atrocious acts of putting bombs through letter boxes and empty houses. Violet in the meantime pulls out as her husband didn’t (she knocked up, ta?), and it ends up with Maud and Emily going to this horse race and trying to attract the attention of the King. Now, if you don’t know what happens at that race, it won’t be us to spoil it, but that will definitely give the vote to all women… 14 years later.

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Mulligan does her best as Mrs Watts (and will definitely be nominated ‘cause Oscars, that’s why), but alas, the script fails her and the rest of the cast. A protagonist moved by coincidences rather than character is a sad thing to watch. She lacks depth, and putting her as a somehow half-arsed participant of the movement just doesn’t work. Same goes for Anne-Marie Duff, for the first part the most interesting character in the film, but that suddenly realizes she’s a feeble, weak, pregnant woman and bombing empty houses is just a step too far (what the hell?). And let’s not even get started with the 3 minutes of screen time by Meryl Streep. As controversial as the character that she portrays (though by exactly opposite reasons), she felt more like the caricature of an icon than as an inspiring figure that would make women throw themselves in prison for. Never give up. Never surrender. Unless you’re running for the Academy Award against her, that’s it. Then just pack your bags and go for a break in Hawaii instead. Ben Whishaw delivers to his best abilities (which are pretty good), but the needles in this massive haystack of famous names are, surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter and Brendan Gleeson. Bonham Carter, now Burton free, reminds us that she’s actually a great actress, by underplaying the would-be doctor and bomb maker Edith, and Gleeson should be granted a part in every film since we’ve seen him in Calvary. His copper/inspector has the only plausible character arc in the whole film, much due to how he plays in his scenes with Mulligan. But again, there’s a limit to how much an actor can do when working from a weak script, and Abi Morgan’s screenplay, is not only painfully flawed (something particularly sad as this is the same person who wrote Shame), but also takes itself and its theme too seriously – no humour, no jokes, not even some sassiness. 

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Male Cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man, Buried) has unfortunately forgotten to bring his tripod to this shoot and the whole film is delivered on that oh-so-modern shaky camera to a period film. Oh yeah. Such innovative. Much cinematography.  The music by male composer Alexandre Desplat is forgetful (he being probably more into scoring The Danish Girl). Of course, the costume and set design are great – it is a British film after all. It was also the first film to be allowed to shoot next to the Houses of Parliament since the 1950s.

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Maybe Suffragette is a failed political statement after all. By finishing in the weirdest place possible, and reminding us (with some anglocentric post-film credits) that women’s vote is not a universal right, you can’t deny it does want to be seen more than as an historical drama. However, it also wants to win some big awards. So let’s stir away from anything too terrorist-like, ignore the tension of middle and high-class white women giving orders to working class “foot soldiers” to do the dirty work, put some racial bleach all over East London (really guys? really??), and not dwell into anything too controversial. These women are mothers and do everything for their kids right? It’s not like the biggest obstacle to the feminist movement was the absence of contraception – I mean, Maud only has one kid, though she was abused for years by her boss and is married for a while as well? But to talk about it would mean to admit the existence of female sexuality (and make the link to the slightly more controversial second wave), right? We don’t want that! After all, they’re Mothers. Daughters. Rebels. As the poster says. To call them people would be too freaking far. No no no. Let’s not. Here, have some shaky sensual scenes of beautiful laundry being folded. Hmmmm, doing laundry….

Suffragette is playing at the BFI London Film festival and will be in general release from 12th October 2015

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.