Over the past few years the rights of women have once again become a major issue on the world stage. From the battle for equal pay, the Republicans planning to cut access for women’s healthcare, the abuse women suffer online, this is a time when feminism is needed and I’m proud to say that I am a feminist. Into this climate a film about the Suffragettes is definitely needed, with virtually the entire main creative team being women helping with this. It’s a travesty that there hasn’t been a film about the Suffragettes before, with the closest we had being in Mary Poppins and even then it was one song. There have been depictions on TV but the ones I’m familiar with have been more comedic such as Up The Women. Now is the perfect time for a film about the Suffragettes and I’m pleased to say this film delivers.
The plot of the film concerns Maud Watts, a working class woman who’s been working in a laundry since she was 7 and has a relatively happy life with her husband and son. After she goes to support a friend of hers giving testimony to MPs regarding women getting the vote, events transpire meaning that Maud has to give the testimony instead, getting inspired by it. However, when the decision is made not to give women the vote, Maud gets caught up in a riot and gets arrested. From there, her life starts to fall apart and she finds support from the Suffragettes, eventually joining their movement and committing more acts of violence to bring attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. What works about the film is how it’s presented. From the first minute it’s made clear that Maud’s story doesn’t represent all of the Suffragettes, it’s one story out of hundreds from the time, with this giving the film a strong sense of perspective regarding the Suffragettes. Creating a composite character for films like this is always a tricky task, they can either be overshadowed by the real people in the film, as was the case with Pride (although it didn’t bother me there since the film wasn’t his story) or it can be insulting to the real people by downplaying their role and, in some cases, it can be incredibly offensive if the composite character is given the roles of real people whilst being a completely different type of person (as I’ve heard is the case with Stonewall) but here Maud as a composite character works, because of it being made clear that this is one story. This decision helps with the overall perspective of the film, showing that this is just one way in which the Suffragettes inspired people.
I also loved how the film presents the movement overall, showing the solidarity that the women all have and the inspiration that the movement gives. It’s here that the true power of the Suffragettes is seen, not through their actions in making women’s suffrage a major issue but the empowerment they provide, showing women that there is a life for them outside of their relationship to men. film also doesn’t shy away from the actions of the Suffragettes, showing the violent acts they committed and that these acts could get a bit too extreme, with some of the Suffragettes thinking that they could go too far, along with showing that, even with planning to ensure that no-one would be harmed, that would never be guaranteed. The film also doesn’t shy away from the treatment the Suffragettes endured in prison, showing the humiliation they were forced to go through when they were processed, along with the force feeding of the women who went on hunger strike, with this scene being incredibly disturbing because of how realistic it’s portrayed and, to be honest, I had to look away from the screen at that point. It’s here that the film also shows that those who had to arrest the Suffragettes thought the methods used against them were too brutal, it creates a great sense of moral complexity on both sides which really works. The way Maud gets treated by her neighbours and husband is another thing the film does well, I’ll talk a bit more about this when I get into the performances but this part also highlights the women who were against the movement, which further shows the moral complexities in the film. The timeline of the film also works wonders for this particular story. I’ve seen complaints that the film doesn’t go into the actions of the Suffragettes during World War 1 and how these were more responsible for women getting the vote but that isn’t the story of the film, the film is about getting attention for the movement and in this regard, where the film chose to end perfect, although the foreshadowing for it was a bit too on the nose, even if I knew what was going to happen at the end when I found out one of the character’s names.
The acting in the film is superb across the board. I’ve always been a fan of Carey Mulligan, I consider her to be one of the best actresses working today and even with her already stellar performance record, she managed to top herself here. She brilliantly shows the extent to which women will go to for their freedom, along with the apprehension at first over whether she’s doing the right thing. It’s clear that Maud is afraid over what will happen to her family as a result of her actions with the Suffragettes and Mulligan brings this across perfectly. She also shows a strong loving nature throughout the film, mainly in relation to her son, showing a great empathetic streak that works for the character and near the end of the film, when things start going wrong for her, Mulligan’s performance is heartbreaking. From here, she shows the anger at the heart of the movement over how women are treated in society and seeing Mulligan treating men the way she’s been treated is incredibly cathartic, especially a scene regarding her boss. Equal to Mulligan is Anne Marie Duff as Violet, she shows the hardship that most women faced in that period incredibly well, making her incredibly sympathetic, along with showing the fire and drive that women in the movement had and how empowering the movement is for women the worst off in society. Her best work though is the fear she shows when she thinks the actions are going too far, the fear that people will be killed and that it may turn people away from the Suffragettes is brilliantly shown by Duff. The friendship that develops between Maud and Violet is brilliantly presented as well, showing how both women inspire each other and it’s with the performances of Mulligan and Duff together that the power of solidarity in the movement is presented so well.
Helena Bonham Carter is also great as Edith, the leader of this group of Suffragettes. She has a great presence throughout the film, along with a very respectful and intelligent nature which lets you know why she’s the one leading this group. Her performance also shows the physical strain that the hunger strikes took on the women who performed them near the end of the film, as well as the difficulties that educated women faced at this time in getting respect. Ben Whishaw meanwhile is great as Sonny, Maud’s husband. It’s clear that Sonny loves Maud at the start of the film but as the film goes on he becomes more enraged by the actions of Maud and Whishaw does this increasing anger brilliantly, in a way that feels completely believable. He shows that Sonny is out of his depth looking after his and Maud’s son on his own and he fears the social isolation that will ensure that there is no safety net for their son because of Maud’s actions and even in the scenes of his greatest anger, he does retain some sympathy. This also goes for Brendan Gleeson as the Inspector who goes after the Suffragettes. Whilst he is the closest thing the film gets to the villain, he has some sympathy. It’s clear that he’s just doing his job and he does feel sorry for the women and feels that the treatment of them in prison is barbaric, but he also is incredibly condescending towards the women and doesn’t understand why the movement attracts women and that women will not betray each other, brilliantly showing his ignorance about the situation. Romola Garia and Natalie Press also do great work in their relatively smaller roles, along with Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, although the marketing did overhype Streep’s role. Whilst Streep has the right presence for Pankhurst, if you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen Streep’s performance in the film, her role is essentially a cameo. The only performance I don’t feel fully works is Geoff Bell as Mr Taylor, Maud’s boss at the laundry. For as good a job Abi Morgan does in writing the film with moral complexity, this performance feels cartoonishly over the top misogynist and doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film.
On a technical level, the film does a mostly great job. As to be expected from a Film4 backed period piece, the production design is excellent, brilliantly recreating the environment of the East End during the 1910’s, along with the prison system of the time. The costume design is great, providing a great contrast between the working class Suffragettes the film focuses on and the upper class politicians. Speaking of politicians, the way Parliament is incorporated into the film is great, with Sarah Gavron doing a great job directing the scenes inside the building, in fact her job directing the dialogue scenes and the overall environment of the film is really good, with one major exception, the shaky cam. Whilst the shaky cam works in creating a hectic environment for the conflict with the police, the film relies too heavily on shaky cam for most scenes of movement and this feels really disorienting in a way that wasn’t intended. It’s a big pet peeve of mine in film shaky cam, only one director uses shaky cam correctly, that being Paul Greengrass, and whilst it doesn’t detract from the film too much as it was used relatively sparsely, it was annoying for me.
Overall, Suffragette is a brilliant, incredibly timely film. The fact that the story of the Suffragettes hasn’t been told before created expectations for the film that were virtually impossible to meet but this film succeeded through its smaller scale focus. Limiting itself to a small group of Suffragettes makes it clear that there are many other stories and so many more women that the Suffragettes inspired, the small scale helping to put the story in a large scale. All this is matched by incredible performances from Carey Mulligan and Anne Marie Duff, with these performances alone being worth watching the film. The fact the film is also an incredibly compelling account of the Suffragettes that doesn’t shy away from any aspect of their actions and how they were treated is the icing on the cake.
My Rating: 5/5