Powerful, gripping, infuriating and heart-breaking in equal measure, Director Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette” brings a pivotal chapter of British history to vivid life without ever falling prey to feminist diatribe.
It charts the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional wife and mother who finds herself caught up in the events and activities of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th century, thanks to fellow laundry worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Their working class lives are in stark contrast to that of the more notable middle and upper class ladies who drove the movement but the film prefers to stick at the grass roots level, placing real life figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst (a cameo from Meryl Streep) very much in the background. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, an amalgamation of several real life suffragettes, most notable Edith New (who was one of the first to advocate and practice vandalism in aid of the cause), while Natalie Press plays Emily Wilding Davison who would write her name in the history books during a fateful protest at the Epsom Derby.
While the fight for ‘votes for women’ tends to be used as a catch-all term for what the suffragettes were fighting for, the film also shows how many other basic rights were denied to women of the age, including the devastating lack of any legal rights whatsoever over their own children. Carey Mulligan’s performance is irresistibly compelling as she chart’s Maud’s journey from contented laundry worker, wife and mother to the fiercely defiant, principled campaigner she becomes. Her journey is made all the more fascinating by the increasingly brutal and totalitarian actions of the State, personified by Brendan Gleeson as Inspector Arthur Steed. Driven by fear and a desperation to crush the movement by any means necessary, the State ends up creating and fortifying the very things it was afraid of, using many techniques and approaches which seem very familiar to today’s society of security and the war on terror. Complicit in the forging of Maud’s rebellious spirit is her husband Sonny, played expertly by Ben Wishaw. It’s a thankless, despicably craven role but he plays it with a tortured sincerity that hints at the divided loyalties that must be buried deep for the sake of social propriety.
One of the starkest things about the events shown in “Suffragette” is the realisation of how little things seem to have changed. The focus and identity of the campaigners may shift but it the fight for equality and fairness seems as necessary now as ever. As the film itself shows at the end, this is not ancient history: Switzerland only granted women the right to vote in 1971. When you look back at the recent films exploring and exposing the great social injustices of the past century, be it Women’s rights, the struggle for civil rights in “Selma” or even the brutality of policing in the 1990s as highlighted in “Straight Outta Compton” it’s not hard to think we’ve really not come very far at all in the past 100 years.
“Suffragette” is many things: a salutary lesson in the bravery and shame of our ancestors; a gripping drama with tremendous performances throughout; a morally complex and cautionary tale for those who blindly believe in the benignant nature of the State in respect of all its citizens. This is potent, significant cinema, maybe not as visceral or ferocious as “12 Years A Slave” but no less harrowing.