It makes me a little embarrassed (though I suspect I’m not alone) to admit the first time I heard of the British women’s suffrage movement was from Mary Poppins. While most will remember the scenes of Julie Andrews and her flying umbrella, the animated penguins and Dick Van Dykes’ “Steppin Time,” there was a subplot buried in that magnificent film, about where the children’s mother is while her kids are taken on fantastical adventures. The mother, named Winifred, is revealed to be a member of Emmeline Pankhurst’s British women’s suffragette movement. Winifred’s lone number, “Sister Suffragette,” memorably included the lyrics, “our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, well done, sister suffragette.” Pankhurst is even name dropped in the song and Winifred gleefully exclaims “Votes For Women!” repeatedly during her brief screen time. Let it be said that Mary Poppins was about so much more than just a spoonful of sugar.
To finally get to the new movie, Suffragette only makes me wish I were still writing about Mary Poppins, which at least had a full, more focused sense of what it’s about. Despite being directed, written by and starring some very talented women, it feels like something is missing.
Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a wife and hard working mother who, in 1912, joins the woman’s rights movement and immediately finds herself and her family ostracized. Even with the encouragement of a local doctor (Helena Bonham Carter) and no less than Pankhurst herself (played by Meryl Streep), Maud’s commitment to the cause brings her imprisonment and heartache. Yet, despite overwhelming odds, she and her sisters fight on.
Suffragette provides a potent, well mounted account of both the movement and the atmosphere of an oppressively sexist environment. The washed out grey look is just-right, as are the shots of clothes lines reaching across the buildings, suggesting the considerable presence, hard work and designated roles of the women who live there.
Streep’s one scene as Pankhurst is, unfortunately, a quickie cameo. Yet, who better than one of our greatest film actresses to play a landmark female figure? Mulligan is pretty good, sinking her teeth into a number of meaty dramatic scenes, but doesn’t carry the film like she should. Neither do her co-stars or the thorough yet choppy story. Despite lots of eventful passages (involving protests, imprisonment, harrowing forced feedings and a tragedy at a race track), a steady momentum is never established.
It was wise to make the mother/son relationship between Maud and her boy the heart of the film. The scene where Maud’s boy is taken from her (for reasons I won’t reveal) is gut wrenching. Yet, this aspect of the story fades in the third act.
I was moved by the closing shots of the real protestors, as well as the closing pre-credits scroll. It seems this would have been much better as a documentary, without the burden of carrying a narrative atop an engrossing history lesson.
Considering how timely the film is, with Jennifer Lawrence’s recent essay on unfair salaries for actresses (and women in general) and Patricia Arquette’s rousing Oscar speech on the topic (which Streep demonstrably applauded), you’d think this would leave a greater impact. The screenwriter is Abi Morgan, who wrote the unforgettable Shame, and the director, Sarah Gavron, has a feel for staging scenes with massive extras, towering sets and lived in details.
There’s enough here to spark discussion and further interest, with enough entertainment value and a swift pace to keep it from becoming a formulaic Hollywood history lesson. Still, while superior to Mary Poppins on the subject of woman’s suffrage, it doesn’t cut deep enough.
Two and a Half Stars