"Suffragette" is the kind of film that races past many other probable Oscar contenders to get in theaters, giving you the impression of its esteemed quality, until you sit down and watch it to realize it's a mediocre representation of an important part of history in an already crowded sea of adult drama. Overlong, underwritten, and messily shot throughout, this is a film more concerned with tugging the heartstrings of the viewers than attempting to detail the scope and impact of a significant movement in the long, arduous pursuit of gender equality.
What better way to detail the Suffragette movement by way of a fictional character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) in particular. She's a twenty-four year old laundress, working tireless hours in sweatshop conditions in order to provide for her husband and young boy. She witnesses the riots of the Suffragettes in the crowded streets of London as she works, one of whom is Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), one of her coworkers who believes that peaceful protest will no longer work in attempting to get the voices of women recognized.
The film follows Maud as she works to support her family and becomes close with Emily Davison (Natalie Press) - one of the few people to have actually existed during this time - a woman who encourages Maud to fight for her equal rights in voting and pay. Along the way, because she is jailed numerous times for speaking out against the corrupt Parliament, Maud is jailed and eventually loses custody of her child, in addition to losing her job. As her life spirals out of control, tensions between men and women heat up tremendously, with Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) being called in to try and simmer the pot that is boiling underneath frustrated women all over London.
Maud is a bland character, to say the least, though the filmmakers' focus on her is well-intentioned. While Maud may not have been a real character in the Suffragette movement, her commonality is intended to show the everyday women behind this movement. This wouldn't be so bad if Maud was (a) defined by her ideas and her own feelings rather than feeling like a scrapbook, with her ideology cut and pasted from the likes of others around her upon meeting them and (b) didn't spend so much time focused on her needy, absent-minded husband. This is another perfect example of a female-centric film that gets too involved with a male love-interest and falls prey to an underdeveloped female character and an unremarkable, archetypal male character.
With that, the focus on fictional characters only makes it easier for director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan to go for cheaper, emotionally manipulative ploys. Every time we see the Suffragettes beaten in public protests or cruelly mistreated in prisons, we hear accompanying orchestration so unsubtle and bombastic to fit the mood we should be feeling it would make Hans Zimmer blush. This is an element made to distract from the struggles of these brave women, and the focus on Maud's family in addition to this only makes it more of a misdirection. The brutality here is less for a depiction of authenticity and more a cheap, emotional ploy.
Then there's Gavron's directing, which leaves a lot to be desired. Aside from capturing the entire event with an ugly, ungainly visual palette that emphasizes murky browns, grays, and greens, the manner in which Gavron chooses to direct a number of these scenes is questionable. Anytime a protest occurs in the streets, consider a very early scene when Violet smashes storefront windows by throwing rocks, Gavron goes for a closeups and unruly shakiness in her videography, allowing no elaboration on any kind of environmental sense of placement. This sort of tactic is used throughout the film, making for a film that's as nauseating as it is boring, anchored in mediocrity thanks to a longer runtime for a story that lacks almost any kind of development what so even.
"Suffragette"'s poorness as a film is only more disappointing, considering this is a project almost entirely helmed by women (even down to the film's two financial backers, Alison Owen and Faye Ward). The stunning mediocrity of this film is attributable to numerous different angles, but the ultimate sin is this is a film with an important message, a significant movement, and a chance to voice its ideas at a critical time where the gender gap plays a huge role in every day society - and it chooses to milk it for cheap pathos rather than tell a compelling, factual story.