Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 106 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This film is about the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom, during which women fought for their right to vote; there is a variety of violence, including civil disobedience, police violence during protests, hunger strikes and force feeding of women, and beatings; some kissing, sexual harassment, and implied sexual coercion; some nudity (a butt, but not in a sexual way); and some cursing, drinking, and smoking.
The fight for women’s right to vote is fictionalized in ‘Suffragette,’ which looks at the lengths British women went to for their voices to be heard. The film features solid, empathetic performances, but feels quite paint-by-numbers in its narrative.
By Roxana Hadadi
Focusing on one person to tell the story of a movement isn’t new, as last year’s excellent “Selma” about Martin Luther King, Jr. and 2013’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” can attest. And so it makes sense that to draw audiences into a story about the women fighting for their right to vote in early 20th century Britain, “Suffragette” invents a fictional protagonist—but focusing the entire film around that protagonist and her increasingly melodramatic problems may not have been the best move.
To be fair, Carey Mulligan (of “Far from the Madding Crowd”) is an excellent actress, in a film full of them—Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter round out the trio on the film’s poster. And the film doesn’t ignore the very real violence facing these women, from police beatings to imprisonment to familial abandonment. But as everything gets worse and worse for Mulligan’s character Maud Watts, the film becomes repetitive in making its point: These women were willing to lose everything to gain the right to vote. After a while, you’ll get it—but “Suffragette” doesn’t have much else to say.
The film begins in 1912 in Britain with Maud, who has worked in a laundry for most of her life, the same laundry where her mother died and where her boss has been sexually harassing her for years. There’s the suggestion that her son isn’t her husband’s, Sonny’s (Ben Whishaw, of “Spectre”), but the man’s who has employed her and abused her since childhood. But even with all this hardship—long working hours, poor wages, chemicals that burn her hands—Maud just sees this as her life. What’s going to change?
It could all change if women had the right to vote, argue suffragettes who are appealing to the men-only government, and Maud slowly gets drawn in. She befriends members of the women’s Social and Political Union, she speaks for the right to vote at a government meeting, she joins street matches and protests. Sonny isn’t pleased, but Maud seems to have finally found her people, her comrades, her voice.
Their tactics, though, are becoming increasingly destructive: smashing store windows, blowing up mailboxes, cutting phone lines. “If you want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable!” the women say. But Maud’s activism has a price—imprisonment, rejection by Sonny, loss of access to her son—and as she moves closer and closer to the front lines of the suffragette movement, will it all end up being worth it?
Mulligan is perfect as Maud, sensitive but steely; the years of injustice she has suffered make her formidable and fearless, and you understand why she commits to the movement the way she does. But the film builds her up only to tear her down, and that kind of narrative puts too fine a point on what these women were up against.
Nevertheless, for parents watching this with teen daughters, “Suffragette” will spark a lot of conversations—about the use of civil disobedience, about whether the movement went too far or not far enough (the film ends with a particularly violent, selfless act that is historically accurate), and about how the right to vote is an essential part of citizenship. Although “Suffragette” makes its points too blatantly, it’s still a worthwhile watch—a reminder of how society has changed for women in the century since this movement, and what still hasn’t changed at all.
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