The difference between a historical drama and a documentary is often a fine line; dramas offer an escape whilst documentaries inform on reality. In other words, many find a documentary boring and a drama fun. Suffragette, the latest film by Sarah Gavron, tries to do both – so it’s kind of boring and fun at the same time.
Welcome Maud Watts, the fictional amalgamation of female suffering in the early 1900s portrayed confidently by Carey Mulligan (and tapping into a thick, cockney accent, a far cry from her whimsical spoils of Daisy Buchanan in ‘The Great Gatsby’ remake). Maud’s journey takes her from unwilling resistance member of Emmeline Pankhurst’s (portrayed briefly by Meryl Streep) militant suffragette movement to a full blown foot soldier in the feminist cause. Her companions along the way include staunch Edith Ellyn (resolutely commanded by Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press). Those who know their history know exactly where this film is going.
As a fictional character used to portray female experience, Maud sits somewhat uncomfortably amongst an immensely authentic backdrop that Gavron creates. The visuals are superb; a convincing Georgian city, accurate costume and a grey colour palate all serve to remove gender from character – the women at points being virtually indistinguishable from men in their blacks with their hair tied up.
A grey film, apt for such a grey area. At points in the narrative the colour transcends this grey into vibrant images – when Maud is reunited with her son; when the ultimate sacrifice kick-starts the suffragette victory – colour is creatively employed for emotion and for that, ‘Suffragette’ can be commended for thinking outside of its contextual box; points go to Gavron for that.
But coming back to Maud’s son and her experience as a whole, Gavron’s decision to show most aspects of female life – the mothering role, the wife role, the worker role – serves only to murk focus. Though the ambition is admirable at attempting to display how far reaching the inequality was, emotional beats often fell flat due to underdevelopment. Here we really have Gavron’s film escaping documentary and playing up drama, the result of which is a little disconcerting. For here the film threatens to tip over onto the fun side of this seesaw, swinging its arms in a ham-fisted kind of way.
For a movie where we are encouraged to celebrate equality, many have protested that black women are given no focus at all. In fact, viewers have actively scolded some lines such as Pankhurst’s ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. The issue here is really from a discord between early 20th century life and contemporary views. On a similar note, many modern day men might feel aggrieved that virtually no male in the film is a likable character.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that this was life back then – ‘Suffragette’ immediately had this against its favour when being shown to the audience of today. Also against its favour is the fact it is a film. Film requires focus, as mentioned earlier; they cannot accommodate historical accuracy and inaccuracy at the same time to appease us all today. For what it shows, ‘Suffragette’ does a good job in its poignant portrayal of past (and arguably even current) reality.
That being said, the male characters work surprisingly strongly. Brendan Gleeson’s police officer Steed is suitably ambiguous. His determined hunt for the women offers much of the excitement of the film, while his subtle sympathy emphasizes the struggle of many against unequal politics: ‘I’m just doing my job’ he confesses at one point in his thick, Irish mutter.
But, returning to the opening idea of historical drama versus documentary, where ‘Suffragette’ really falls flat is balancing entertainment with a Wikipedia article. Fretting over historical accuracy produces more documentary than film. Whilst ‘Suffragette’ has its moments of emotional despair and sporadic action, on the whole the greyness of its colour stock, instead of the earlier mentioned grey areas, only serves to drawn attention to the simply mundane screenplay (and make it extremely difficult to take notes in the low light of the theatre). Despite great performances, the film’s attempts at authenticity remove it of any significant character.
So in the end, Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’ plants itself on the side of boring, though boring is perhaps a bit unfair given the importance of its message. The film is strong here; equality and determination are uplifting qualities to see. At the end of the day though, for a film like this, the see-saw needs to be perfectly straight, something Gavron has not quite managed to master.
Not in-suffra-ble, but not great either.