Suffragette, like last year’s Selma, benefits from the fact that its release is coinciding with several social justice movements. The release of Selma seemed perfectly timed, highlighting the similarities between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. But the timing also worked against the modern-day protests, as many—including Oprah Winfrey, who appeared in the film—wondered why the Black Lives Matter protests couldn’t be more like those organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Coming out amidst further developments in Black Lives Matter as well as an important time for modern feminism, Suffragette offers a portrayal of historic protests that weren’t quite as peaceful—those of the British women’s suffrage movement. As such, it may be more cognizant of today’s political climate. Unfortunately, the film isn’t as well-made or engaging as Selma.
Compared to Selma, the lack of a towering historical figure to serve as the main character works against Suffragette. Instead, the role is filled by Maud Watts, a fictional character played by Carey Mulligan. Mulligan gives a tremendous performance, but Maud can’t help but feel cliché and underwritten compared to the historical figures around her, such as Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter) and leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a disappointing and minor performance).
The film has a competency that never manages to expand into excellence. It’s well-shot and gritty, thankfully resisting the urge to glamourize its actors. But while there’s potential for a great film here, the storytelling never manages to advance beyond that of a basic historical drama.
Suffragette is at its most compelling when it comes to the protests themselves, with the suffragettes breaking windows and bombing mailboxes. But for a film that defends this militancy with the line, “War is the only language men understand,” it feels like they don’t show enough scenes like this. Much of the running time is spent on the sacrifices Maud is forced to make for her involvement in the movement—sacrifices that essentially become irrelevant when the film drops them near the end—and ultimately, the climax reveals that a historical figure who didn’t get much screen time was the film’s most important character. This presents a missed opportunity to expand on her story, and possibly even replace the fictional protagonist with her.
While good intentions and some wonderful performances manage to save Suffragette from being an outright bad movie, its biggest accomplishment is in its depiction of militant protests. But while this kind of depiction is an important measure to debunk the myth of equality gained entirely by peaceful protest, it’s preferred that it be tied to a better film.