WHEN filming a factually based drama, there are many problems that you will encounter during the creative process. In the telling of the story you have to be as unbiased as possible for risk of being accused of pushing an agenda, but you also have to have a clear message throughout the film so the story can stay on track. Similarly, the characters have to be very clearly written and in a way that is as least judgemental as possible.
No easy task if the person you’re writing into the story was, for example, a dictator, but you have to make sure that the characters aren’t written flatly so you can maintain the audience’s interest. A story like this is still beholden to the rules of storytelling but it’s made all the more difficult by the fact that real life doesn’t play out like a story, or at least not like a story that an audience could enjoy, and all these problems are compounded when the factual basis is a politically sensitive issue where a lot of personal beliefs come into play.
The major problem with Suffragette is that, outside of Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, the characterisation is very thin. This shouldn’t really happen when you have a surfeit of fictional characters alongside a few real life figures, as the writer shouldn’t be beholden to any kind of biography or contemporary sources. When you have great actors like Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw and Anne-Marie Duff, you expect the characterisation to be generous and rich so the actors can play around with the role and, potentially, surprise the audience.
Instead, we have one-dimensional people that sit in the role of archetype who we want to develop, but end up receiving a flat finale for their story, the most obvious example being Ben Whishaw’s character as Maud’s husband Sonny. Throughout the film, he plays the “put upon” husband who wants to keep his family unit together. With Maud’s life becoming more enwrapped in the Suffragette movement, he pushes her away but cannot take care of their child on his own. After an emotionally-charged back and forth throughout the movie between Maud and Sonny, we expect to see a reconciliation of sorts, at most a realisation on Sonny’s part that he should support Maud or – at the very least least – a possible talk on their individual standpoints about the issue.
But we never get this. We continuously hear reasons for Sonny’s dislike of Maud’s activities but we never see the upshot of this in ways that affect him beyond a few harsh words and some staring from the neighbours. Anything bad that directly happens to Sonny is self-inflicted, which may be the point, but it makes his character very weak. He never progresses himself and disappears quickly towards the end of the film and this happens too often with every other character. This could be said to be a sensible move as it helps focus on Maud’s character, but with the amount of talent on the screen you can’t help but feel that the actors were misused in their roles.
Beyond the characterisation being weak, however, the film is a fairly solid one. The cinematography is gorgeous and really sets the time period well. The design, costume and usage of extras are also excellently done which helps to show, as realistically as possible, how the people would have been at the time, but you can’t expect anything less from a BFI film. The music score, brilliantly composed by Alexandre Desplat, is another fantastic addition to the film and never seems out of place when played alongside the action on the screen. In his atypical style, Desplat never tries to ramp up scenes of emotional intensity with bombast, instead using quiet as a much more powerful tool to draw the audience into the screen, to get closer to the emotion.
The standout is the star player in the form of Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts. A fictional character amongst real events, Mulligan expertly portrays a working class woman in pre-WW1 London in a way that never seems phoney. In a style that has almost become the norm in historical drama, we see Mulligan’s slow change in her belief in the Suffragette cause, going from a struggling mother and wife who just wants to get by, to being a fully fledged activist within the Suffragettes.
We see her struggle with personal life and activism within the group as they clash internally and externally and Mulligan’s approach to how a person like Watts would have reacted is superb. From working slavishly in an industrial laundry to being force-fed in prison, from blowing up postboxes in London city to a culmination of events leading to Epsom Derby, we see Watts run the gamut of emotions that a human being can encounter and every time Mulligan is on screen the emotion never rings false.
If Watts as a character had felt false, then this film wouldn’t be as effective in conveying the message it intends to put across. And yet, despite fact that we have come far in the world, we still have a long way to go before certain parts of the globe are equal for women. This is an important film that needed to be made. When you can talk to people today about the Suffragettes in this country and their first reaction is, “Who were they?” then that shows that there is still some education that needs to be dished out.
When people, especially women say, almost proudly, that they’re not voting, that shows that this film needed to be made and the point reinforced. Despite its flaws, Suffragette is a film that makes its point very well and never in a way that feels alienating to some of the audience or in a way that comes across as too preachy. It’s a film that people need to see, not because it breaks new ground, but because it treads old ground to deliver perspective on where we were as a society, where we are now and where we should go from here.