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Dec 13 2018

Months of Meryl: Suffragette (2015)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#50 —
Emmeline Pankhurst,key leader of the women's suffrage movement in the United Kingdom.

JOHN: Vandalizing storefronts,detonating mailboxes,carrying out prison hunger strikes — these are but a few of the risky tactics employed by women in the British suffrage movement in and around London circa 1912.Sarah Gavron'sSuffragettechronicles the movement's pivot to such dangerous gambles in an effort to draw attention and spark action for the cause."Deeds,not words"became the new mantra after years of respectable yet unsuccessful solicitation of a woman's right to vote.These radical activists,led by Emmeline Pankhurst and visionaries like Emily Wilding Davison,Edith New,and scores of others,believed that civil disobedience and militant action were the only ways to disrupt the status quo and achieve women's suffrage.This crucial moment of history has rarely been represented on screen,save for glimpses of the movement inMary Poppinsor in a handful of documentaries,despite the exciting and provocative elements inherent in this important story.

Unfortunately,"Important Story"could appropriately serve as the tagline and governing principle of Gavron's misguided though well-intentioned film...

As penned byThe Iron Lady's Abi Morgan,the script chooses to keep the more challenging deliberations of the movement on the periphery as we watch Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) come into her own as an activist,focusing on the sacrifices she must make as a wife and mother in order to do so.Rather than focus on its protagonist's radical politics,Suffragetteinstead reads like a Dickensian tale of a young woman who stumbles into a movement that changes her entire life,but rarely does the film ask Maud to consider the implications of the movement she becomes enmeshed in without reframing her activism in relation to her domestic life.It doesn't help that the film is shot like a student film enraptured with handheld close-ups and nondescript widescreen vistas that do little to illuminate Maud's interiority.Mulligan herself,doing her best here but still as studious as ever,rarely inspires deep feeling.Why not,instead,a biopic of Davison,played here by Natalie Press (My Summer of Love) in a marginalized performance that deserves to take center stage,especially considering her shocking demonstration/possible suicide at a derby during the film's climax?Though it often feels like doing homework,Suffragetteis not entirely a wash;it fills an important gap in cinema's historical representation with vigor and energy unusual for its chosen genre.Still,one can't help but wish for a film with as much audacity and daring as the brave women it depicts,one with a scope wide enough to account for the variety of its characters and a protagonist as involving as the cause for which she is fighting.

Meryl Streep's Emmeline Pankhurst features predominantly on the poster forSuffragette,looking proud and wise alongside Helena Bonham Carter,each actress flanking Mulligan.However,those looking for a substantial Streep performance will be disappointed: Streep figures no more than three minutes total throughoutSuffragette,and while her Pankhurst remains an important figure in the plot's development,she is nonetheless a glorified cameo.Halfway through the film,her supporters gather clandestinely to hear her speak.Pankhurst has been in hiding after claiming responsibility for a host of crimes committed in her movement's name.The character emerges on a balcony and urges the suffragettes to live without fear,to be militant in their own ways,and to never,ever surrender,before being whisked away as the police near.As she gets into the car that will take her to her next hideout,Pankhurst is introduced to Maud.She quickly thanks the young woman for her service… and then she's gone.

At a Telluride Q&A during the film's release,Gavron plainlyadmittedthat without Streep's participation,the film would not have been financed.If a three-minute cameo by a major star is enough to get financiers to write checks to fund an entire film,maybe "star power"really is a commodity as valuable as oil or gold.Do moneymen really think that the only way to get butts in seats for a feminist historical drama is the the prospect of hearing a speech by Meryl Streep?Either way,Streep's participation inSuffragetteis purely as benefactress,lending her persona and bankability to a film with noble intentions,requiring little to no effort on her part.What do you make of Gavron's comment and Streep's involvement?Is this a laudable sign of Streep's power or just a dispiriting business practice?Do we even attempt to discuss the "humanist"debacle?

MATTHEW: IfSuffragetteis to be remembered at all within the context of Streep's career,it will likely be recalled only for the hubbub surrounding its release,namely Streep's unusual deflection of the question "Are you a feminist?"during an interview withTime Out(she identified as a "humanist") or that ill-advised promotional campaign for the same publication in which Streep,Mulligan,and their all-white co-stars posed in t-shirts sporting one of Pankhurst's most dubious statements: "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave."This latter debacle was not helped in the slightest by the film they were loudly plugging.Styled as a propulsive,period-specific political thriller,Suffragetteintimates radical ideas trapped beneath woefully conventional filmmaking.Gavron and Morgan make plenty of room for the in-fighting and ideological differences that arose between the suffragettes,but generally shrug at the matter of nuance and bear no interest in genuinely critiquing the exclusionary practices and at times racist mentalities of these women,who merit a tougher,more thought-provoking treatment than the one afforded here.Morgan's screenplay,in particular,is weirdly one-track minded when it comes to Mulligan's Maud despite the undeniable communal effort of the movement it seeks to depict,too committed to dramatizing a single surrogate's story when this real-life material would have benefited from a more generous and panoramic approach.Riskier,less genre-beholden direction might have elevated it,but that task is left mostly to its actors.

Mulligan is the whole show and she's effective enough that Maud's journey from tentative participant to tenacious foot soldier appears more complexly lived-in than it might have been.But the performance is really just a fabrication of an inner life,an honorable attempt to make up for what's missing on the page.There is not much depth or variation to be found inSuffragette's archetypal characterizations and by-the-book narrative,which means that all of its performances ultimately live on the surface,no matter the effort expended by the hardworking ensemble that surrounds Mulligan.Carter,Romola Garai,Press,and a particularly moving Anne-Marie Duff offer valuable support and personality as Maud's initiators and chief comrades,as do the the vivid faces of the many actresses playing sidelined and often anonymous suffragettes;Gavron and Morgan might have done well to flesh out their characterizations,but alas.

And then there's Streep,who shows up to deliver a series of spirit-rousing slogans,including the one printed on those unfortunate,tone-deaf t-shirts.Streep's cameo is ultimately less about the content of Pankhurst's address and more about what it solidifies within Maud,whose apprehension directly after this scene pushes her further down a road from which there is no envisionable return.Rejected by her husband and robbed of her beloved son for her political involvement,Maud and her narrative call to minda famous feminist lightning rod from the dawn of Streep's career: Joanna Kramer,a woman made to feel similar guilt and immorality for daring to envision a life for herself beyond the scope of wifedom and motherhood.But whereas Joanna decisively gives up her duties as wife and mother at the outset of Robert Benton's drama,Maud is instead deprived of these same duties,her domestic foundation ripped out from under her.The character may espouse militant beliefs,but Gavron continues to hawk the same antiquated devices of motherly love and sacrifice as easy,treacly inroads into an audience's heart.What mightSuffragettehave looked like with a female protagonist who willfully,even shamelessly,abandons her domestic roles for a more urgent calling or a screenwriter willing to move the topic of motherhood to the back burner?To look atSuffragettealongsideKramer vs.Krameris to be reminded yet again that cinematic storytelling has not evolved quite so substantially in the 36 years that separate these two films.

It is momentarily heartening to see Streep make such a charitable donation of her time and star power to a project she believes in,within a career that has tirelessly pushed feminist causes on and off the screen,from her work withthe National Women's History Museum,to which she pledged the entirety of her $1 millionIron Ladysalary,to her loud and passionate backing of theEqual Rights AmendmenttoThe Writers Lab,the yearly workshop for women screenwriters over 40 that she and Nicole Kidman support.Suffragettemight have made for a compelling marriage,however brief,of Streep's political interests and cinematic pursuits,but instead it just feels like a minor misstep."It's deeds,not words,that will get us the vote,"Suffragette's fearless freedom fighters remind each other,time and time again.In modern-day Hollywood,it is so often behind-the-scenes deeds,not words spoken in movies,that bring about the change we long to see.

NEXT WEEK:Florence Foster Jenkins(2017)

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Reader Comments (9)

This film was not good.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered Commenterevangelina

A blink and you miss it cameo but glad she used her star power to help get the movie made.
Now can we have a Pankhurst solo movie with Streep?

December 13,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

"Never surrender.Never give up the fight."

From one suffragette to another...From one actress to another.She says the words as if she's imprinting them on Carey's soul.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

This film is about suffrage.Meryl's next film is about sufferage.For the viewer.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

what does that mean?

December 13,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Streep donated her salary of a million to the Women's Movement.She was the first film star to challenge Trump and ask the media to stay on his back( at the Golden Globes ).

She has proved to be not only a film icon,but a political force.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

As a woman and a feminist I looked forward to this film,hoping it would capture a little known but important historical event.I applaud Streep for lending her bankability to this little film,and the acting talent involved tried their best.I don't think it was a bad effort so much as a mediocre film.I remember being impressed by Mulligan,but I was even more impressed by Helena Bonham Carter.Not great,but an honourable try.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

A disappointing film.These things happen.A valiant effort from those involved but the story just fundamentally was not on the page.Needed more daring and originality.

December 13,2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghan McQ

Still a better reviewed film than a lot of award contending films in 2015 such as Trumbo,Joy,and Woman in Gold.

December 14,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

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