Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sarah Gavron
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, Finbar Lynch, Meryl Streep, Samuel West, Adrian Schiller, Natalie Press.
Sisters are certainly doing it for themselves in this earnest drama about the early suffragette movement.
Part earnest historical drama, part political drama and part character driven historical drama Suffragette looks at the struggle of British women to gain universal suffrage in the early part of the twentieth century. London in 1912 became the flashpoint in the struggle for feminists to gain some measure of equality by earning the legal right to vote. A footnote during the end credits puts the struggle into context as it provides a roll call of nations who have granted women the right to vote, with New Zealand leading the way.
Maud Watts (played by the always excellent Carey Mulligan, from An Education, etc) has worked in an industrial laundry since she was 12. The conditions are harsh and brutal and shabby, the hours long and gruelling, and the workers often run the risk of being abused by their predatory foreman (played here by a suitably vile Geoff Bell). Anyone who complained ran the risk of being dismissed. Maud is slowly drawn into the world of the militant suffragettes through her friendship with the politically active and outspoken colleague Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), the wife a local pharmacist, much to the displeasure of her husband Sonny (the very busy Ben Whishaw, who is in no less than five films at the moment), who questions her fitness to be a mother.
The women become more radical in their campaign, with civil disobedience, riots in the streets, and even systematically blowing up mail boxes. The women are often incarcerated, beaten or tortured. Their activities are monitored by Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a special forces policeman who seems conflicted and torn between his duty and responsibilities and his grudging sympathy for the women’s cause.
The script comes from Abi Morgan, who previously wrote Brick Lane and the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, and it is well researched and reeks of authenticity, giving us a well rounded picture of the conditions endured by working women of the period. Morgan gives us the fictitional character of Maud who provides us with our entry into the struggle, as she moves amongst some real life suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, the spearhead of the movement.
As Maud, Mulligan delivers a nicely nuanced, heartfelt and moving performance, and she brings passion and fire to her role. Meryl Streep makes the most of her brief screen time as the outspoken and controversial Pankhurst, and she brings gravitas to her portrayal of this historical figure. Whishaw is good as the unsympathetic Sonny, while Gleeson lends his strong presence to the material.
The director is Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, etc), who is respectful of the important story here, and she handles the key set pieces superbly. Jane Petrie’s costumes and Alice Normington’s production design reek of authenticity and capture the squalid look of pre-WWI England effectively, while cinematographer Edmund Grau’s use of washed out colours and close-ups is effective in conveying the grim realities of the period.
With its story about a minority group’s struggle for equality under the law, Suffragette reminded me a lot of last year’s powerful and moving Pride, about the struggle for equality and gay rights in Britain, and hopefully this film will prove to be just as relevant, timeless, inspirational and provocative.