Whilst most men would agree that giving women the vote was a dreadful mistake (put that stone down ladies…. it’s just a joke), the astonishing story behind the UK social upheaval that was the Suffragette movement is well overdue a serious cinematic treatment. And a serious treatment Sarah Gavron’s new film most certainly is: you exit the cinema feeling about as wrung out as the linen in the heroine Maud’s workhouse-style laundry.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, an ordinary and anonymous working woman who progressively gets sucked into the anarchic rabble-rousing of an East-end branch of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). With operations run out of a chemist’s shop by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and her sympathetic husband, Maud risks a criminal record and the shame associated with that to pursue her ideals. Police pressure is applied by special forces copper Arthur Steed (Harry Potter’s Brendan Gleeson) and personal pressure is put on her by her husband (played by Ben Whishaw, soon to be seen again as ‘Q’) and her alleged fitness to be a mother to their young son George (Adam Michael Dodd). As politicians continue to ignore the issue, the actions build to one of the most historic events of the period.
The struggle is seen very much through the limited prism of this select group of women. But where I really liked this film is in the slow awakening of Maud’s character. In many ways it is like the germination of a seed that we are seeing on the screen. She starts without any interest in the movement and even mid-way through the film she is adamant that she is “not a suffragette”, despite evidence to the contrary. Mulligan is, as always, completely brilliant in the role.
The supporting cast are all strong with Gleeson being particularly watchable as the lawman with a grudging respect for Maud and her cause. Meryl Streep makes a powerful cameo as Emily Pankhurst: but it is a short and sweet performance. Maud’s friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) is also outstanding, her gaunt face delivering a haunting performance.
Whilst there are some highly emotionally charged scenes in the film, in a political sense the film has a curious lack of passion at times. A keynote speech to Lloyd George for example should have been electric – yet the Abi Morgan’s script doesn’t quite do the scene justice and if I was the MP I wouldn’t have been impressed (which perhaps was the point).
I also had issues with some of the cinematography. Carey Mulligan has such an expressive and photogenic face that extreme close ups should work brilliantly. And yet filming it with a hand-held camera produces a constantly shifting image which was extremely distracting. Elsewhere in the art department though 1912 London is beautifully recreated, through both special effects, costume and make-up.
Alexandre Desplat delivers a touching score with a clever underlying drumbeat of change.
Suffragette is a solid historical drama, that tells an important social tale… a tale that graphically illustrates how much the world has really changed, and changed for the better, in a mere hundred years. Above all, the film concludes with the astounding fact that Switzerland only gave women the vote in 1971 (and in fact with one canton holding out on local issues until 1991). Shameful!
Fad Rating: FFFf.