Why did all the best moments in Suffragette go to the men?

This film isn’t really shocking until you see the roll-call of different countries and the year in which each one granted the vote to women.

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It would be wrong to suggest that Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow crusaders for equality would be turning in their graves if they could see what had been done to their story in the new film Suffragette. On the contrary, it’s so timid that they would probably turn over and fall straight back into their eternal slumber. The setting is a poverty-stricken corner of east London circa 1912. The cobblestones are steaming and the urchins are scampering cheerfully in the gutters while white sheets hang permanently in the sun on clothes lines suspended from one side of the street to the other. It would be reasonable to ask why no one ever takes ‘em inside and puts ‘em on the bleedin’ mattresses. But that’d diminish the full Angela’s Ashes poverty chic, you ‘ear me?

Sorry about that. The cast has worked so diligently on its Cockney accents that it’s hard not to slip into one yourself after spending nearly two hours in their company. “’Appy birthdee”, trills the budding suffragette Maud to her young son. And when I tell you that Maud is played by Carey Mulligan, you will appreciate the effort that went into dropping those aitches. No dialogue coach in the world, though, can put pain where there isn’t any. Whether scrunching up her nose at beastly politicians or twisting her mouth as she is force-fed in prison, the truth is that Mulligan does not have the face for suffering.

As a fellow suffragette, Anne-Marie Duff is more like it: she resembles a pick-axe; she can project anguish from within as she uses her entire body and physiognomy to chip and hack away at the injustice she sees. It’s beyond Mulligan’s capabilities – at least for now. It isn’t that she is miscast exactly. The director Sarah Gavron wanted someone sympathetic and appealing with whom audiences could identify. Anger and belligerence is fine in supporting parts. No one wants to be holed up with Ms Angry. The safer option is preferable from a commercial standpoint, even if it’s misguided from an artistic one.

It is through Maud’s story that we find our way into the account of the suffragettes’ fight. She is our surrogate. There are inspirational figures along the way – it’s especially good to see the brilliant Natalie Press (My Summer of Love, Red Road) as Emily Wilding Davison. How much sharper and less placatory the movie would have felt had it been her story. And popping up in a cameo as Mrs Pankhurst to sprinkle some Hollywood stardust over the story is Her Meryl Streepness, without whose participation no film can be considered for an Academy Award.

But it is the fictional amalgam of Maud that leads us through historical events. More’s the pity. In merging traits and details from assorted women, the screenwriter Abi Morgan has created one of the dullest protagonists ever to be made the driving force of a major motion picture. Maud undertakes a few decisive acts, including the rescue of a minor character who has Please Rescue Me painted on her face in much the same way that sorority girls in slasher movies have Carve Me Up in the Woods on theirs. But even when Maud participates in the bombing of David Lloyd George’s house, the outcry and divisions this causes within the movement don’t affect her overmuch. Essentially, Maud is first a sponge and then a mouthpiece: if she’s not absorbing slogans (“It’s deeds not words!”), she’s dispensing them.

This is symptomatic of the main problem of Suffragette. What the filmmakers fail to have noticed is that they have made most of the female characters unspeakably tedious, and given all the best moments to the men. Whether it is Brendan Gleeson as a sinister surveillance expert rounding up the rebels or Ben Whishaw as Maud’s husband making a callous decision about the care of their son, the male cast members demand our attention while the female ones settle into a neutralising nobility. When Morgan isn’t certain that we’ve comprehended how rotten it was to be a woman in early twentieth century Britain, she will lob in another scene featuring the picture’s pantomime villain, who is not only (a) a factory boss and (b) a man but (c) a paedophile into the bargain.

Filmmakers as experienced as Clint Eastwood, in his Nelson Mandela drama Invictus, and Quentin Tarantino, in Django Unchained, made the mistake of turning the supposed heroes of their stories into tiresome angels. So perhaps we should cut Gavron (for whom this is only her second feature) and Morgan some slack. There’s no quicker way to diminish a character than through sanctification; one of the reasons why Selma worked so well was that it showed Martin Luther King (played by David Oyelowo) to be fully flawed. Suffragette, though, features few plausible human beings. Maybe that’s why the first jolt of passion and emotion isn’t felt until the actors have all left the screen to make way for archive footage at the end, followed by a roll-call of different countries and the year in which each one granted the vote to women (France: 1944! Italy: 1945! Switzerland: 1971!). We had been waiting throughout to be amazed. That sure got us gasping.

What Gavron and Morgan don’t appreciate is that a film about insurrection told in outdated and conventional cinematic language does its subject no favours; it’s the equivalent of throwing a wet towel over a fire.

Suffragette is on release

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.