The story of the Suffragette movement is one fraught with drama and excitement. There’s grand political activity, martyrdom, moral dilemmas and even fights and explosions. After viewing Suffragette, Sarah Gavron and Abi Morgan’s dynamic and stirring take on the war for women’s rights, you’ll be left wondering what took so long for a mainstream film to be made about this group. Given life by a prestigious cast, centred around an excellent lead performance by the always quietly brilliant Carey Mulligan, the film both sells you a world gone by and taps into the never-more-relevant zeitgeist of radical feminism, reminding audiences that the work is far from done.
Mulligan absolutely owns every scene of Suffragette, which is quite a feat in a film also featuring Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, and Brendan Gleeson. Playing Maud Watts, a woman who’s been working all her life in a grim and dangerous laundry for a vilely abusive employer, Mulligan’s journey from passive onlooker to righteous activist doesn’t hit a false note. Frequently shot in tight close-ups, the subtle changes in Mulligan’s expressions register just as emphatically as many of her impassioned words, and with her as a constant anchor, the film can let us see earth-shaking events without ever losing sight of the personal costs.
Maud’s first proper experience of the Suffragettes comes when she’s caught up in a bombardment by the movement of Oxford Street shops. She catches the eye of Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who works at the same laundry as her and is due to speak to parliament about the unfair wages received by the women of the laundry, as well as to make a case for votes for women. Hours of exhausting toil in abysmal conditions have surely earned them these rights. When Violet is ‘outed’ as a Suffragette, she is beaten by her husband, rendering her unfit to deliver her speech. Maud goes in her stead and appears to strike a chord in the Commons.
This display earns Maud the attention of Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter in a more grounded role than she’s had for years), an educated and charismatic leader who knows both chemistry and jiu-jitsu. Days later, and Maud is getting arrested when she joins a protest against Prime Minister Asquith’s (the real-life grandfather of Bonham Carter) decision to not alter the Suffrage Bill. The scenes in the prisons are compellingly nasty, whispered mentions of hunger strikes keeping the well-known horrors of force-feeding as a pervasive threat. Meryl Streep makes an incredibly short appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst, a near-mythical feminist figure (she’s in hiding for much of the story) portrayed in cameo by one of the most legendary actresses alive. Suffragette concerns itself far more with the working class women of the era, a canny decision that resolutely disproves the mindset that Suffragettes could only be rich women with enough time on their hands to have cause.
Another excellent narrative conceit is to have no villain of the piece. Whilst Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Steed may be the face of the establishment trying to bring the movement down, the man himself is far from irredeemable. By making the target the general ignorance and bigotry of society, writer Morgan ensures that Suffragette is still highly relevant to today’s society and allows all kinds of potential viewers to sympathise with the cause. That is not to say that the tactics of the special force headed up by Steed are not utterly heinous, however. Leaving arrested women to the displeasure of their husbands rather than incarcerating them, and then publishing their faces on the front pages of newspapers, the government starts a psychological battle that escalates to bombings of post-boxes and unoccupied buildings.
The effectiveness and justifiability of the Suffragette bombings are still debated today. They were, by most definitions of the word, ‘terrorist’ acts, and the toll they took on the consciences of the perpetrators is explored here, but not quite to the extent that you’d like. A moral crisis that promises to be one of the film’s more psychologically insightful moments is really deflated by the revelation that the character in question is pregnant, and that seems to have spurred her change of heart more than the acts we’ve seen her carry out.
Suffragette is a timely and undoubtedly rousing film that often feels less like a period piece than a dramatisation of very recent events where the participants just happened to be wearing early 20th Century garb. Great performances humanise an enormously momentous series of historical events, and as a cinematic reminder of the ludicrous challenges to equality that women still face, it’s one of the most vital historical dramas of this year.
Directed by Sarah Gavron
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring; Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep
Runtime: 106 mins