A drama that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State. These women were not primarily from the genteel educated classes, they were working women who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing. Radicalized and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality - their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives. Maud was one such foot soldier. The story of her fight for dignity is as gripping and visceral as any thriller, it is also heart-breaking and inspirational.
Films that take on important societal issues from a historical point of view have an uphill battle ahead of them. For starters, they need to be grounded in a reality that accounts for the true historical events and characters while also presenting information that is relevant to a contemporary audience. When a topic may be too grand or provocative it could either succeed grandly or backfire entirely. For Director Sarah Gavron's film 'Suffragette' starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brenden Gleeson, and Meryl Streep, the film decides to focus on the challenges of granting the women of Great Britain the right to vote through the eyes of a fictitious character. While the film serves to be a compelling and passionate look at what it took to grant women a basic human right, the film's results don't completely resonate and becomes a bit muddled by the actual history of events.
Life is hard for everyone in London, as it is through the whole of England in 1912. While most people struggle to make an honest living and put food in their stomachs, women have an extra hard time of it. Compared to their male counterparts, women on average are being paid half as much and work a third more every week for comparable jobs. This is especially true for Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who toils away in a boiling hot laundry. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) also works at the same laundry and together their combined income is enough for them to get by on and provide for their small son. While Sonny works just as hard as his wife, he doesn't have to endure the near-daily advances by their boss, nor does he have to cope with the memories of past abuses.
As Maud's day-to-day existence is one of routine, it is shaken up when she's caught in the middle of a suffragette protest where women were throwing stones through the window of a West-end shop. While she herself wasn't arrested, she does witness the brutal tactics of the police when they rounded up the protesters. Her growing empathy towards these fighters for equality puts her in contact with long-time and frequently incarcerated suffragette Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). When a fellow laundry worker is unable to tell her story to a Parliamentary panel convened to consider the right to vote for women, Maud is selected to tell her own story. Believing some good will come from it, Maud is actually put square into the middle of the movement and into the eyes of Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson).
Inspector Steed is tasked with leading a crack group of undercover investigators whose entire aim is to root out the leader of the movement Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). As arrests are made by Steed and his men, Maud, and other women endure years of persecution, incarceration, beatings, brutal force-feedings, as well as the ostracization from their families and communities. Before there can be any victory for the movement, sacrifices must be made and more extreme tactics must be taken by Maude and her fellow suffragettes. Some may even have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to shake the whole of English society and chart a path towards equality.
Taken as a whole 'Suffragette' is an incredibly well-acted, directed, shot, and written cursory view of important historical events. However, a 106-minute film is not the best format for such a far-reaching and engrossing topic. Because of the film's limited time span, a number of real-life characters were condensed and crunched into single individuals and events and important moments are only given a brief glimpse rather than the necessary in-depth analysis they rightfully deserve. This was a struggle that earnestly started over fifty years prior to the historic 1918 vote that gave the right to property-owning women the right to vote. When thousands of women were arrested throughout the course of the movement's history, the decision to focus on only one fictitious character may have been a poor story-telling choice.
As an American male born in the 1980s, I won't even begin to pretend to know or fully understand what was involved in the suffrage movement in Great Britain, let alone the same movement in the United States. That said, I do have some knowledge of events as well as the capacity to Google certain individuals and events, and I also have access to a number of podcasts and sources to pull accurate information from that only undercuts the importance of a movie like 'Suffragette.' This isn't to say that the film itself isn't good or was made with genuine intentions, it's just that in this day and age where information can be accessed in the blink of an eye, the onus is on the filmmakers to ensure that the content of their historically-driven work stands up to scrutiny. While 'Suffragette' does an amazing job at capturing a particular side of the story, it doesn't get all of the necessary information. Going into the film, I knew of multiple groups of women, not just the Suffragettes under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst who fought for equal rights. I also knew that it wasn't just a fight to allow women the right to equality but for men as well. Most of the men that fought in World War I didn't have the right to vote. This isn't to minimize the importance of these women's actions, but to bring an understanding that the movement was a lot larger and involved people of difference sexes, races, and socio-economic standings all of whom made sacrifices towards a common goal.
If you stand back and just look at 'Suffragette' for what it does to bring certain events and moments as well as the treatment of women during this era to light, the film works incredibly well. Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have done a tremendous job at crafting a story that works to make you feel the horrors of what so many women went through and in many cases continue to endure. Carey Mulligan as Maud delivers an incredible performance and proves that she is a fierce talent. Helena Bonham Carter as Edith is also in peak form playing a woman who has been in this battle for so long that she may not live to see its end. The dynamics between the two, Maud a new recruit for the cause, and Edith a long-time veteran, serve to act as an incredible reminder that this was a multi-generational fight and one that is arguably still being fought today. I also appreciated the presence of Brendan Gleeson as Inspector Steed. Steed could have easily been tossed into the "villain" category, but he's given a welcome amount of nuance to make him an empathetic and multi-dimensional character who comes to understand what these women are fighting for and ultimately respects them.
Ideally, 'Suffragette' should have been a six, eight, or even a ten-hour event series similar to 'Roots' or 'The Blue and the Gray.' The fight for equality ensuring women be granted the same rights as men and the right to vote was a long one with so many facets and numerous important figures that it can't even begin to be effectively covered in one hour and forty minutes. 'Suffragette' is possibly best viewed as an introductory course, a taste of parts and pieces of what really happened. In order to get the full story, there is a lot more content that should be read and viewed and listened to. 'Suffragette' is a tremendous effort, but it isn't quite the definitive statement on the subject that it aims to be.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Suffragette' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Universal Home Video / Focus Features. Pressed on a Region A BD50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case with an identical slipcover. Also included is a Digital HD voucher for iTunes or Ultraviolet. The disc opens with a series of trailers for other upcoming Focus Features releases before arriving at a static image main menu with Universal's traditional navigation options on the left side of the screen.
'Suffragette' features an intentionally drab looking 2.35:1 1080p image. Part of this purposeful presentation is a result of color filtering as well as the usage of 16mm film stock to create a dark-toned, pale looking film. Through this process, the film looks like a hazy period film that takes place in the worst parts of London. Colors rarely leap off the screen as the color tones favor grays and deep blues. Flesh tones have a tendency to appear sickly and pale as a result. The only real flourishes of color are seen during the climax at the derby. Fine film grain is apparent throughout providing a noticeable amount of detail and clarity in makeup, costuming, and the film's impressive production design. Black levels are inky but due to the film stock limitations, the film has a rather flat look to it. All around this is a fine presentation and it looks good, but don't expect it to wow you.
'Suffragette' comes to life with a rich and well mastered DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track. There is an impressive immersive feel to the track as the surround channels are constantly engaged. The scenes at the laundry where Maude works are particularly noticeable as are crowd scenes. Dialogue is crisp and clear and easy to hear throughout and the elements have plenty of separation. The film's score by Alexandre Desplat takes up a lot of the slack for quieter conversational moments sticking to the sides while dialogue and key sound effects occupy the front/center channels. Levels are spot on as there was never a need to change volume and the audio's sense of imaging was strong as well featuring plenty of channel movement and directionality that didn't feel forced or unnatural.
Audio Commentary: Director Sarah Gavron and Writer Avi Morgan handle a very informative and interesting commentary track. Together, the pair go into great depth about the writing, creating an amalgam of real-life people to create the Maude character as well as casting and the amount of work that went into the production design to recreate early 20th century East end London.
Inside 'Suffragette': (HD 10:31) This is a brief but very good look at some of the events that transpired and accounts for some of the fictional characters, casting, and other aspects of the production. Better than your average EPK extra feature, it could have been a lot longer, it has a feeling of a lot of material not making it into the final edit.
'Suffragette' Looking Back, Looking Forward: (HD 7:10) This is a nice companion to the previous extra feature. Considering the relationship of the content, there's little reason for it to be its own extra feature and could easily have been a part of a larger documentary piece.
Making the VFX for 'Suffragette': (HD 5:07) This is a very cool, but brief look at the visual effects work of the film and the research that went into recreating the old cityscapes with Director Sarah Gavron and her effects team talking over various clips and scenes from the film.
'Suffragette' is well-meaning but perhaps too narrowly focused film about an incredibly important and multifaceted topic. An hour and forty minutes is just not enough time to handle the massive amount of information so we get brief glimpses. The cast is brilliant and this is a clear labor of love, but those looking for a more encompassing experience of historical events may find this film lacking. Universal Pictures has done a fine job bringing 'Suffragette' to Blu-ray with a fantastic A/V presentation as well as a couple of insightful but brief extra features. The audio commentary is absolutely worth a listen. It's still a very good movie and worth watching, making this Blu-ray recommended.