'Suffragette' review: Formulaic, clichéd film is a disservice to its vital topic
The historical drama "Suffragette" (opens in theaters nationwide Nov. 6) is a serviceable period piece movie whose heavy-handed storytelling fails to equal the importance of its subject matter.
In short: Laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a dutiful employee, doting mother and loyal wife. When she finds herself drawn into to suffrage movement, which has catastrophic consequences on her home and work life. Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson also star. (Watch the trailer)
"Suffragette" smartly is not a sweeping, bookend-to-bookend movie that tries to chronicle the suffrage movement from beginning to end. This film squarely focuses on the experiences of one very specific woman who toils in a dangerous, hard labor environment and is regarded as less than her male contemporaries. Keeping the narrative almost completely on a single character was a good call -- but making the protagonist a fictional character is where the problems only begin.
The main character Maud Watts did not exist. Instead, she is presented as an everywoman who joins the suffrage movement -- and she also represents an amalgam of all the inequities inflicted upon women. Her main antagonist, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), also did not exist. Yet, they coexist with a characters based on real-life counterparts. Using fictional proxies to represent a broad range of personalities and experiences makes Watts and Steed rather shallow and broad. The film then drops Watts and Steed into some well-known historical events - such as the bombing of Prime Minister Lloyd George's cottage and the 1913 Epsom Derby - in a lazy storytelling misstep to afford the movie a means to putting those events on screen.
"Suffragette" is a well-meaning attempt to chronicle the injustices inflicted upon women during the British suffrage movement -- but it resorts to tired platitudes and heavy-handed storytelling to make its points. This script reads like a series of political posters instead of a story about people and conflict. And advice to any writer - if you're going to take liberties with history, by injecting fictional characters into a real-life story, then make the non-real characters interesting. But the combination of banal dialogue and paper-thin characters only results in a movie populated by shallow characters who hit the audience over the head with its obvious message.
Featuring Meryl Streep on the prominently promotion art and in the trailer is classic bait and switch - Streep is in just a small handful of scene and her role amounts to a single call-to-action speech. This is not a Meryl Streep movie - this is a movie with a very small amount of Streep.
Final verdict: "Suffragette" gets a passing grade largely due to the decision to recount an important historical event that remains timely today. But this movement deserves a better movie that isn't so reliant on cliches and by-the-numbers storytelling.
"Suffragette" is rated PG-13 for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity. This historical drama is now playing in theaters nationwide.