Celebrating nearly a century of women’s right to vote, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is an important and inspirational film on democracy in action.
Woman On Fireby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After years of patient waiting, women’s struggle to get the right to vote eventually became militant in the early years of the last century. In Suffragette, the passion and the sacrifices of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) members still have the power to inspire. Suffragette is scripted and shot as urgently if it’s a contemporary news story. And that’s the point – women’s struggle for equality is still relevant in many countries around the world. As the statistics in the end credits show, in some countries they have still not been granted a vote.
Set in 1912, with solid, well-researched period details, it can, however, at times feel like a loosely connected series of incidents. The story centres on the fictional character of laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, subtle and poignant, dominating the film) in pre-First World War London. She gets swept up into the women’s suffrage movement by co-worker Violet Miller (strident but also abused Anne-Marie Duff). In a twist of fate, she finds herself testifying to Lloyd George in Parliament and then tracked by a relentless Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who honed his surveillance skills among Fenians in Ireland. Fired by a rebel-rousing balcony speech by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a Thatcherish cameo) and evading arrest, Maud gets drawn so deeply into the struggle that in the end she loses everything.
The all-woman team of director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan, who worked together on Brick Lane, don’t spare us the routine sexist male hostility and ridicule of the time, the gratuitous, excessive police brutality and the horror of force feeding, when hunger strike was the only protest imprisoned suffragettes could make. The churning crowd scenes are particularly well choreographed and shot.
The film also stars Helena Bonham Carter as middle-class pharmacist Edith Ellyn, whose shop is a suffragette meeting place, and who has a sideline in explosives and an unusually supportive husband (Samuel West) as well as Romola Garai as wealthy Alice Haughton, powerless when her husband won’t allow her access to her own money. However, the purpose of Mulligan’s working-class Everywoman is to make the history accessible, and as a reminder that it wasn’t just a middle-class movement. But her character has to bear the burden of too many issues pegged on one person – as well as fighting for the vote against overwhelming odds, she has sexual abuse and sweatshop exploitation by a vile supervisor (Geoff Bell) to contend with and an unsympathetic husand (an unrewarding role for Ben Whishaw) whose property she is, with no rights over her beloved son.
Suffragette is inspirational, important and must-see. It’s particularly moving when the funeral of the movement’s martyr, Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), who died under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Derby, segues into archive footage of crowds of thousands watching at the roadside and ranks of white-clad suffragette mourners – shots which went round the world and finally gave their cause the publicity they sought.
Suffragette is released on 12th October 2015 in the UK