Suffragette Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter. Directed by Sarah Gavron. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Compassion is a worthy quality in a human being, but filmmakers who prioritize it above all else produce movies that offer little more than worthiness. Suffragette, as its title suggests, tells the story of the battle to secure women the vote, focusing on the movement as it unfolded in England during the years just prior to World War I. But while it’s gratifying to see that a film about this important subject was written and directed by women, neither director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) nor screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Invisible Woman) demonstrates any willingness to grapple with history’s messy complexities. This is an emphatically rah-rah picture, expending most of its energy on conveying how hard life was at the time for those lacking a Y chromosome. No viewer’s preconceptions will be challenged.
Given the many real-life suffragettes Morgan could have chosen, it’s telling that she’s invented a composite character as her primary heroine. When the film begins, in 1912, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a perfectly ordinary wife and mother, working long, arduous hours in an industrial laundry that reveals the literal origin of the word “sweatshop.” As it happens, several of her co-workers are secretly activists, and one of them, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), invites Maud to attend a meeting of their group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Initially reluctant to cause trouble, Maud comes around after her experience attempting to fight within the system fails miserably. Before long, she’s more militant than activist, joining women like Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) who have escalated beyond minor bouts of civil disobedience, committing acts—like the bombing of a house—that arguably qualify as terrorism.
In theory, that shift into violence ought to be both exciting and thought-provoking, raising the question that would later be posed by Malcolm X, regarding the civil rights movement: Can the oppressed ever achieve their goals without essentially declaring war on their oppressors? (For the “yes” argument, see Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.) Suffragette has little interest in making viewers think, however. Instead, the film does everything short of superimposing frowny-face emoticons on the screen as Maud’s fight for equality destroys her marriage, threatens to take away her child and otherwise turns her into a figure of derision and scorn. It’s designed to make you shake your head at the Neanderthal attitudes that ostensibly civilized societies once held, rather than inspire debate about how much those attitudes persist.