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Suffragette Review [LFF 2015] - Oscar Bait That Just About Works

If you cast Meryl Streep you're clearly wanting awards.

Rating: ˜…˜…˜… Suffragette couldn't be more Oscar bait-y if it tried. A period piece hinging on set design and emotive performances dealing with a plight that couldn't be more vogue in Hollywood at the moment, it has the rough filmmaking of an indie director and the sheen of a studio production, with grain even added to certain shots to accentuate the time setting. And, in a decision by the casting director done explicitly to add one to the number of nominations on the home video advertising, Meryl Streep stars in a bit-part (read: two scenes and some still photographs) as Emmeline Pankhurst. She'll get a Best Supporting Actress nod for sure, although once again it's off the strength of her career as opposed to what's on offer here. Yet while those tactics can traditionally lead to films that work amiably, but have no real weight, this approach gels for Suffragette. It may be Oscar bait, but it's Oscar bait that works (mostly). What's most fascinating is how the film depicts the radicalisation of Maud (Carey Mulligan, who offers just enough lightness behind her suitably dead eyes). A narrow feminist vision would have her just opt into sufferage out of a feeling of inequality, but here it's as much forced upon her by early victimisation from those who systemically side with institutionalised sexism. In fact, there's as much a comment on the extents of broad political activism and the danger of fierce opposition as there is feminism (not that that element is the beating heart here - only an unflinching misogynist wouldn't be cheering along like Meryl Streep during Patricia Marquette's Oscar acceptance speech).
Such complex successes mean it's shame that it feels like the rough edges of the story have been removed so the film can achieve a 12A rating. Scenes of violence are choppily edited to create the illusion of terror while not actually conveying anything too harrowing and torturous actions are all too quickly cut away from to protect the squeamish. One subplot with a pervy boss in particular feels included just to shock, but is so light it doesn't have much impact (although it does at least have a satisfying payoff). And, like last year's The Imitation Game, the film ends ten minutes too early, missing out the real meat of the story's close. There's an argument to be made that it's meant to lead into the fight not being over, but that's far too preachy. These are the pitfalls of wanting enough mass appeal to get a sizeable audience in the theatre and not gross out the Academy. When you just accept that like you do empty CGI spectacle in a blockbuster, Suffragette is a fine film with solid performances, a few emotive moments and a care for its ideals. That'll do. Seen as part of the London Film Festival 2015.
Suffragette is released in UK cinemas on 12th October and US cinemas on 23rd October.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.