|'the composite character of Maud merely takes away from the real-life women on the screen, becoming a magnet for a series of unhappy events you can't quite believe, mainly because they did not happen to a character who never existed'|
Writer Abi Morgan talked on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's Radio 5 Live film show as having gone through 'around twenty' drafts for Suffragette, before arriving at one which fit the bill. It is an easy criticism to level but the idea that this project has endlessly searched around to find its narrative is not surprising, when given the final version to evaluate. Suffragette is, unfortunately, a largely drama-less collection of congealing stories, sorely lacking the impetus, ideals and clear aims of the women it seeks to cover.
The problem, at heart, lies with the central figure of Maud (Carey Mulligan) a composite fictional character for a film that did not need one. Morgan writes Maud with the intention of giving us focus, but instead she merely takes away from the real-life women on the screen, becoming a magnet for a series of unhappy events you can't quite believe, mainly because they did not happen to a character who never existed. The purpose behind Maud is to save the film time on telling us individual stories of the real women who experienced various elements of Maud's life, but instead the effect is one of being spoon-fed history in a manner convenient to the writer and the director, Sarah Gavron.
Emily Wilding Davison, for example, an obvious key figure in the Suffragette movement, and perfectly well played by Natalie Press, is entirely absent from the narrative until the final third. Why leave her as such in order to favour a fake figure of history? It makes little sense narratively (she is, at best, a fringe character, yet Davison's major event in the movement is also the film's), nor conceptually.
The decision isn't helped by the casting. Mulligan and Ben Wishaw (as Maud's husband) are better than fine talents, but they struggle to convince you as two laundry workers, instead leading the film to add to London's gentrification in its own way. Mulligan's accent, in particular, is all over the shop, giving the film even more of a music hall feel whenever she breaks out a phrase of cockney, in amongst the RP.
The film is much more successful when focusing on the more believable relationship between Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and husband Hugh (Finbar Lynch) and when supplementing the story of the Suffragette footsoldiers with that of leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep). Ellyn (another amalgamation, but based predominantly on Edith New) gets a proper story, with believable conflict from a sympathetic Hugh, a long way away from the broad strokes of Maud. Streep, though criminally underused, gives the pomp and drama the story needed though, sadly, the political workings of the Suffragettes, often referred to, are kept off screen, along with at least half of the drama necessary to make this a real success.