Consider, for a moment, two separate films: Suffragette and Everest. Both came out in 2015, both cover well-documented events (the English Suffragette movement in the early 20th century and the 1996 Everest disaster), both are attempting to explore powerful moments in history and why people do the things they do, both have a great cast of skilled actors, and both make a point of presenting their key players as human beings, rather than archetypal heroes or villains (and the few monsters in Suffragette, such as a paedophile business owner, are where one would expect to find them in real life). And yet, Everest lands like a hammer blow, while Suffragette fails to stick the landing.
The fact of the matter is that historical events are often difficult to present on the screen. Real life has its share of drama, but it rarely plays out in a satisfying, three act structure. One of the most dramatic moments in my life this year was dealing with a dishonest, predatory, and vindictive landlord who (as far as my wife and I can tell) filed an eviction against us after he learned we were looking to buy a house and move out. It was dramatic to experience, but anybody watching a faithful movie made out of it would be bored to tears and then suffer mood whiplash - most of it involved multiple meetings with a lawyer at the local legal clinic, looking up laws and precedents on websites to prepare for the hearing, practising opening and closing statements and cross examination questions in the bathroom, and then the landlord agreeing to cash us out before the hearing took place.
Real life is like that - it can be anticlimactic, with conflicts escalating only to end in a whimper rather than a blow-out. Making this dramatic for the screen is difficult, but not impossible. One needs investment in the characters and their plight, as well as an end-point that will bring their story as it stands to a close, even if there is still more to do.
That said, making this work is all about story structure. Any given story, in any given genre, really has only two structural elements when you boil it down, echoed and repeated throughout the main plot and sub-plots: setup and payoff. The difference between Everest and Suffragette is that Everest does this properly, while Suffragette's key sin is repeatedly short-changing the setup.
The setup in Everest is really quite masterful - we are introduced to the characters and the mountain, and incrementally informed of the stakes. We are told of the dangers of the death zone twice, each time with greater detail. We see events that are minor inconveniences by themselves, but, thanks to the way that the movie educates us prior, we are aware of how this can cause a storm to become a life-threatening crisis. By the time the disaster strikes, we understand everything we need to, and what's left is a payoff that the movie has fully prepared. We care what happens, we don't want to see the characters die, and we are left with the feeling that the survivors have just escaped an encounter with something far greater and more powerful than they had ever imagined.
Suffragette's setup is, admittedly, more difficult to pull off. Suffragette covers the path of the fictional Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan), a married laundry worker and mother, into the militant suffragette movement, as well as the price she pays for her activism. Much of the early setup is fine - we get a real sense that Maud is being pushed into the movement more than choosing it, and becoming more and more aware of and frustrated by the inequality she has spent her entire life experiencing. At the same time, this is accelerated by Inspector Steed (played with tremendous nuance by Brendan Gleeson), a policeman who, by all appearances, sympathizes with the cause behind the movement, but sees it progressing into the radicalism and terrorism he faced in Ireland - in his efforts to stop the civil unrest, he inadvertently pushes her into a commitment to the cause.
Unfortunately, this skilled setup doesn't last very far into the movie, and payoffs start to be delivered with little setup, if any at all. There are two key scenes where this is an issue. One is a brutal force feeding - unfortunately, there is nothing before it establishing that Maud is on a hunger strike, so this scene comes out of nowhere (to be fair, this may have been an editing mistake - there is a scene immediately afterwards that feels like it should have been an establishing scene). The second is the scene where Maud's estranged husband, Sonny (played by Ben Whishaw), puts their son up for adoption.
This scene should have been among the most powerful and heartbreaking in the movie, for a number of reasons. That parts of Suffragette that work do so because it looks at the situation with nuance - few characters are monsters, or do anything out of pure spite. The scene is clearly supposed to show the price these women and their families are paying for their involvement in the suffrage movement. Sonny is giving up their son because the family has become so ostracised by the community that he is literally unable to care for him. But this revelation only happens in a single line of dialogue during the scene itself - we never see Sonny receiving anything more than the occasional hard look, and no additional hardship is established. This again makes the scene come out of nowhere, leaving it feeling as though it is happening because the script says it does, rather than because Maud's actions for the greater good have placed the family into an impossible situation.
All of these problems undermine Suffragette in a way that strips away the power of the movie. It feels like it should be a much better and more powerful film than it is - at least as impactful as Everest, if not more so. But, different content notwithstanding, there really is only one significant difference between the two movies, one that single-handedly ensures that one works and the other doesn't - Everest did its setup stages correctly, and Suffragette tried to take short cuts.
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is coming out on October 15th, and is available for pre-order in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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