Rather than try to tackle the decades of history leading up to the British government’s granting of limited voting rights for women in 1918, Suffragette collages a particularly tumultuous eighteen-month period of violence and retaliation in a real and present way. Avoiding broad strokes, director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan paint each character with detailed grit and infectious idealism, and the prestigious cast, gravitating around an excellent lead performance by the quietly brilliant Carey Mulligan, lends each historical event an uncanny familiarity. The film sells a world-gone-by while also tapping into the never-more-relevant zeitgeist of radical feminism, reminding audiences that the work towards equality is far from done.
From the first shots of London’s streets, Suffragette’s snapshot of the early 20th century brings it closer to the contemporary than many of its period piece peers. Even recent period dramas Imitation Game and Theory of Everything taking place nearly half a century later felt more distant. In one scene, Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) touts a ‘portable’ camera that he uses to document the comings and goings of individual suffragettes. On the surface, his unwieldy tech comes off as laughably obsolete, but rather than leave it as a wink to contemporary audiences, the implementation of technology becomes a multifaceted motif throughout the film. Constantly surveilled by police and under threat of being identified in a front-page article, the suffragettes face pushback from virtually all components of modernised life. London’s fin-de-siècle cars, cameras, and newspapers are not quaint or clunky—they have as much power and social impetus as our news conglomerates and tweetstorms today.
Suffragette’s core is an exploration of the social, political and economic pressures that transform social passivity to direct activism, filtered through the fictionalised struggles of everywoman Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a woman who’s been working all her life in a grim and dangerous laundry for a vilely abusive employer. Maud is now married to another worker (Ben Whishaw) and raising a young boy, and becomes an archetype for the thousands of working class women of the time, and unsurprisingly, the ‘Votes for Women’ movement. Maud’s radicalisation happens slowly, over a well-constructed arc of key historical suffragette demonstrations and small rebellious decisions. The penny drops when she questions her husband what would have happened had they raised a daughter instead. She asks what her girl’s life would have been like, and her husband replies simply, “The same as yours.” After a pause, she informs her husband that she needs to work late that evening, and attends an Emmeline Pankurst rally instead—her first of many civil disobediences in the name of equality and representation.
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. In a compelling directorial decision, the shaky-cam chaos of the street riots reappears when Maud’s son is put up for adoption, conflating physical and emotional violence against women in a devastatingly effective series of scenes. 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. However, Suffragette concerns itself far more with the working class women of the era, a canny decision that resolutely disproves the conception that Suffragettes could only be rich women with enough time on their hands to have a cause.
Another excellent narrative conceit is to have no obvious villains in the piece, opting instead to make adversary of the general ignorance and bigotry of society (an ambitious and ultimately successful storytelling flourish). Whilst Inspector Steed may be the face of the establishment trying to bring the movement down, the man himself is far from irredeemable. That is not to excuse the heinous actions of Steed’s special force: leaving arrested women to the displeasure of their husbands rather than incarcerating them, bashing female protesters in the streets, and carrying out infamous force-feeding on hunger striking prisoners are among the many acts of oppression throughout the film. The scaling up of acts of violence and retaliation also tie thrillingly into the rising action of the piece—each demonstration carries more weight than the last. Masculinity is also handled particularly well; every man finds himself oppressed by social expectation of what it means to be a man, and the film explores the repercussions of what happens when those ideals conflict with decency and respect.
The effectiveness and justifiability of the Suffragette bombings are still debated today. They were, by most definitions of the word, ‘terrorist’ acts, and though the toll they took on the consciences and bodies of the perpetrators is examined, the moral implications of their violent cause isn’t as deftly explored. Though much of the film revolves around Maud’s arc, the development of her beliefs and her resultant actions never quite take centre stage of any major furthering of the plot in the final act. This leaves much of the film’s resolution with macro payoff, but lacking in truly emotional catharsis.
Suffragette is a timely and rousing film that often feels less like a period piece, and more a dramatisation of very recent events where the participants just happened to be wearing early 20th century garb. Great performances and adroit construction humanise a 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 and necessary historical dramas of this year.
Directed by Sarah Gavron
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring; Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep
Runtime: 106 mins