LFF Review: Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015, UK)

Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts

Starring – Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Press, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai

The 59th BFI London Film Festival opened with the highly anticipated Suffragette on the 7th of October at its usual venue at Odeon Leicester Square. I had a chance to listen to director Sarah Gavron earlier on in the year and learn more about the making of the film. She came up with the idea decades ago and held it through years of development hell, conducting historical and archival research , and discussing it with academics. She explained that the breakthrough came when they managed to attach Carey Mulligan to the film and with coming closer to the actual centurion to the date. The topic that was regressively neglected by major studios for years suddenly became hot trot and found itself at the opening of the LFF – a long way to go. We live in an age that might be defined later as the ‘era of the third wave of feminism’ and Suffragette’s timely release places it in a pioneering position as one of a very few feature films about the Suffragette movement.

In the trailer the chosen scenes were particularly intese and promised a new approach that seemed to want to defy the ordinary period drama approach of ladies in corsets, sipping teas in salons and gossiping. Suffragette was promoted to be a fast-action paced, full with vitality, controversial, and true to history or at least as true as a story of a fictional character can be. The marketing department put a heavy emphasis on the fact that film was a female-led project in all fields; directed, written, produced, crewed by and starring women. We live in the age when concepts like the Bechdel Test have taken root in the social consciousness, illustrating the heated discussion of gender equality, especially in the film and media industries. No wonder Sisters Uncut UK made their presence known on the red carpet.

Of course, it was  beautifully shot, historically accurate, well written and well-acted. Why then did I not come out with that chilling feeling which confirms I just watched the outstanding drama of the season? Outside of the auditorium most conversations revolved around the last seconds of the film, where the dates of women being given the right to vote in different countries are listed. 1974, Switzerland, really?

The film follows the political awakening of Maud, 24 year old laundry worker, mother and wife. Carey Mulligan delivers an excellent performance with bags of character development as she becomes more involved in the cause of radical female politicians. Unfortunately, the film struggles to climb the summits the trailer promises. The trailer was a fast-spaced, energetic and promising piece, the best scenes were chosen, and it forces Suffragette into the pit of many of its contemporaries: they revealed too much. There are potential scenes with Emily Pankhurst’s – played by Meryl Streep – encouraging speech, or Mulligan’s prison speech: “we are in every home…”, that gave me goosebumps in the trailer and left me almost emotionally unattached in the film. Suffragette tackled an original subject with a safe approach and played the period game rules by the book.

It did everything right, ticked the right boxes, both story-wise and visually speaking, but by doing so it lost that special emotional grip only something unconventional can provide you with. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable and knowledgeable film that everyone should watch if for nothing else but to gain more understanding of the subject and to get used to the idea that costume dramas can handle serious topics.

Written by Zsofia Szemeredy

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