Telling the story of the injustice shown toward a group of people because of their race or sex can be overwhelming unless the focus is kept tight.
Director Steve McQueen managed that feat with “12 Years a Slave,” as did director Jean-Marc Vallee in “The Dallas Buyers Club.” Both kept the audience engaged through a clear story with captivating central characters.
“Suffragette” covers a topic of equal importance: Ordinary women who waged a war for voting rights in England at the beginning of the 20th century.
Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan look at this monumental moment through the eyes of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), which gives them a specific point of view for the mammoth story.
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Watts, a fictional character, is a laundry worker who grew up under the lustful touch of her boss. Her life isn’t as bad as many of her fellow workers since she has a small boy and a husband who works at the laundry. When Watts is drawn into the suffragette movement, she must decide between taking up a fight for basic rights or clinging to the sanctity of her home and family.
Mulligan turns in a strong performance, going from a woman who has quietly resigned herself to a certain life to a woman who is willing to speak out for others. It’s a transition that comes slowly, and it feels real.
But it’s the decision to make her character the flag carrier for the movie that is the chief problem. Watts is designed to reflect the average woman of the time. But she’s surrounded by many stronger characters who would have given the movie even more focus.
Helena Bonham Carter turns in one of her best performances as one of the local leaders of the group. She’s endured a life where she was not allowed to follow her dream to become a doctor and has gone to jail multiple times for her protests. It’s far more interesting to watch her husband go against the common thinking to support her rather than see Watts’ husband (Ben Whishaw) turn into such a heartless person.
Meryl Streep’s quick turn as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst offers another glimpse at another far more interesting character.
And, even if the intent of the film was to focus on the average woman, there’s one average woman who commits such an unforgettable act for the movement that her story screams out to be told.
Gavron’s approach makes the central player as much of an observer as the audience. She’s the fifth or sixth most interesting character in the story.
The director generally delivers her story in murky tones, a visual metaphor of the times. Going to brighter hues when the story shifts to a more aristocratic element comes across as too obvious a choice and shows the lack of experience by Gavron.
Gavron’s lucky that Mulligan made the thinnest of characters – played out against an uninspired backdrop – shine. She draws as much focus as she can to the character and, in turn, this key moment in history.
Without Mulligan, the movie would have come across as just being slightly off the emotional mark and slightly melodramatic.