Rooted in the experience of an initially reluctant up-riser and later patriot of the British womens’ voting rights movement, Suffragette has deep wells of compassion and the ability to incite dialogue for the state of womens’ global rights. Sacrificing dramatic momentum and character context early on, a murky delivery sometimes undercuts the passion that drives the movie.
As played by Carey Mulligan, laundress Maud is first hesitant to participate and associate with the suffragette movement, but ultimately risks what little she has for the sake of the vote. Rendering the early lurches and halts of her character’s buy-in more believable for her understated delivery, the film doesn’t always serve her performance as it should. Presenting Maud so anonymously has clear narrative intent behind it – the film solidly upholds the value of any one person’s contribution to a societal effort – but that anonymity sometimes comes off as indifference. Director Sarah Gavron infuses the film with so much palpable passion that it’s a shame some of the creative risks don’t pay off.
With an actor such as Mulligan, always dependably watchable and interesting in even lesser narratives like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or when given less to do like in Drive, we as the audience want to connect with her, especially granting that we know she’s our protagonist. It’s a creative tactic that doesn’t just miss, but it undercuts the drama, setup, and performance.
The film finds its footing towards the middle section, taking a bumpy route through cluttered and confusing imagery and a soggy edit, once Maud is firmly planted within the movement. Scenes become more confidently relaxed and allow for this ace group of actors to take the spotlight and sparking some life into the proceedings. Stacked to the hilt with solid actors, Suffragette is at its strongest when it gives breathing room to its performers. Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter stand out, game scene partners for Mulligan that provide much needed texture to the relationships beyond what the scripts provides. Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson avoid becoming barking moustache-twirlers, instead giving subtle complexity.
But it is Mulligan’s show, finally granted a showcase years after her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education. Given the massive physical and emotional demands of the role, it would take an actor of her ability to not be swallowed whole, but instead she delivers a steadfast, controlled performance.
Though ending in a powerful coda, the stops and starts of the film keep this engaging and entertaining film from reaching the heights it sets to achieve or those achieved by the actors inhabiting it.