Let me say at the outset – the suffragette movement in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century was a hugely important story of liberation. It is unconscionable to us today that women should be denied the vote because of their sex, so the campaign of Emmeline Pankhurst and her followers was of unarguable significance… but, at the risk of being branded a misogynist, the movie it has spawned is curiously dull and without vigour.
The central character is Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker who is (to coin a current term) ‘radicalised’ by the ideology of Pankhurst’s fearless feminism. That the ubiquitous Meryl Streep was hired to play Pankhurst probably had more to do with the producers’ need to find a name that would draw an audience in the US, for, despite her gravitas, La Streep does little more than mouth high-minded platitudes – ‘never surrender’. The hulking menace of Brendan Gleeson is in the mix as the government’s ‘counter terrorism’ troubleshooter, Helena Bonham Carter is cast less than inspiringly as the head of the ‘cell’ to which Maude is drawn and the palely loitering Ben Whishaw gets a start as Maude’s unsupportive husband. All of them combined, however, are upstaged by Adam Michael Dodd who, as Maude’s little boy, George, breaks your heart in an incredibly moving separation scene. Otherwise, director Sarah Gavron’s penchant for hand-held closeups has a numbing effect, especially when combined with an unrelenting sombre palette and one-paced, episodic edit. The period (pre WWI) is beautifully created – especially when out and about in the streets of London – the occasions of public melee convincingly executed and the dreadful incident of Emily Davison’s Derby Day martyrdom hammers home the point – but there remains an emotional disconnect that is made startlingly clear by the B&W archival footage of the thousands of people who lined the streets for Davison’s funeral. Those couple of minutes at the end make all that precede them appear to be self-conscious artiness. It’s an education, for sure, but it could have been much better.