With the recent and necessary push towards improved equality and safety for women all over the world, it was inevitable that interest would resurge about the crucible moment of women's liberation: the suffragette movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With an all-star female cast, an award-winning female screenwriter and themes that could not be more pertinent, Sarah Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’ has taken up that mantle. But does the film break through as a piece of stirring and important entertainment, or does it end up as nothing more than an essay in film form?
‘Suffragette’ focuses on the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a wife, mother and laundress who finds herself swept up in the suffragette movement when her horrific working conditions force her to speak up. Under the watchful eye of suffragette leader Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud becomes a foot soldier in the fight to give women the vote, a fight that costs her more than she could have imagined, but a fight not only for herself, but for those that come after her.
A film like ‘Suffragette’ seems tailor-made for the awards season, and often with period dramas the need for recognition gets in the way of great filmmaking or storytelling. Thankfully, ‘Suffragette’ doesn’t give a jolt for awards, and it’s all the better for it. That isn’t to say that the film is an extraordinary piece of cinema, but its definitely a strong one. To begin with, screenwriter Abi Morgan remembers that character is as important as theme, and makes sure that all the characters populating the film are rounded and affecting. The suffragette movement is rich material for this, especially as it gives us the potential for strong and powerful female characters. What adds to its strength is its refusal to hold back, offering a stirring and, at times, surprisingly disturbing view of the movement. For most people, their idea of the movement would be Glynis Johns and her show-stopping number in ‘Mary Poppins’. What Gavron and Morgan offer though is a movement of tremendous violence. The suffragettes, fighting a fight they may not but absolutely must win, resort to necessary anarchy and destruction to make their point, and are met with violence and mistreatment. It’s a shock to the system how graphic and upsetting this material is in the film, but it feels vitally important to see just how hard women were forced to fight to stand up for their innate human rights, and to see the conditions that finally forced them.
From a technical standpoint, the film does its job without stepping too far out of its comfort zone. Garvron keeps a steady hand, balancing the sentimentality and violence beautifully. There was every chance ‘Suffragette’ could have turned into a soppy, romanticised mess, but it’s a credit to her that it never does. A documentary approach is taken to the look of the film, but while the constantly moving hand-held photography gives the film a sense of immediacy, it also makes it occasionally difficult to watch. The production and costume design hit closer to the mark, ensuring that the period setting is awash with texture and detail. It isn’t an extraordinary piece of work, but it has a purpose and it does what is necessary to get its point across.
The cast is uniformly excellent. As always, Mulligan carries the film on her shoulders without missing a beat, and she doesn’t shy away from showing Maud’s tremendous strength and fragility. Maud is a fictional character, but Mulligan’s performance and Morgan’s writing craft her into a string representation of the women that fought for the vote. The stand-out though is Bonham-Carter, who walks Edith carefully along the line of conviction and hysteria. She represents the idea of victory at any cost, and it’s through her that we witness that. There’s also tremendous work from Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Brendan Gleeson, and Meryl Streep pops up for five minutes as suffragette leader and fugitive Emmeline Pankhurst.
A film like ‘Suffragette’ seems tailor-made for the awards season.
‘Suffragette’ might not be a great piece of filmmaking, but it makes up for that with its great conviction. The mistreatment of women throughout history is an unending disgrace, and the film captures that important moment where the tables finally began to turn. It’s an angry, passionate and powerful film, every frame in dedication to the memory of those who fought for women's liberation and for those who continue to fight. As a film, it works very well. As a statement, it has a lot to say and it says it with great voice. With so many films appearing with the chip of "being important" already on its shoulder, ‘Suffragette’ is , like ‘Selma’ before it, one that is actually as important as it should be.