With an ensemble cast to die for, British historical drama Suffragette is a stylish and sophisticated insight into the tumultuous time it took to get the vote for women.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), this far from genteel film isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Or was, rather. Set in London in 1912, Suffragette tells the true story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement. Attempting firstly with peaceful protests, the women were forced underground to pursue more dangerous methods as the State became increasingly brutal with its dealings with them.
Radicalised and turning to violence, the girls were willing to lose everything for equality – their jobs, their homes, their children and even their lives. Fighting purely for the right to vote, nothing more, the women were made up of wives and mothers from not only hardworking backgrounds, but also the well educated classes too.
The always delightful Carey Mulligan spearheads the movie as Maud Watts, a quiet laundress from South London. Maud is a content mother and wife, but it’s not until an uprising begins around her that she feels the burden of her place in society finally strike her down. Heartbreaking and inspirational, Suffragette (which screened here in Melbourne earlier this month as part of the 2015 British Film Festival) tells of the turmoil women like Maud faced in standing up for their rights, as well as the backlash their families and partners received in response (a repercussion often overlooked in other pro-feminist films).
Maud’s normally supportive husband Sonny Watts (a top notch performance by Spectre’s Ben Whishaw) exiles her in the wake of her destabilising stance, alienating Maud from himself, their son and their family home. Although difficult to understand – or watch for that matter – Sonny’s work is impacted upon because of her strikes, and many mates and neighbours taint him in the shame too. He is also struggling to afford looking after himself and his son (which leads to a heart-wrenching separation scene in the same vein as 2013’s British Film Festival hit, Philomena).
Queen of kook Helena Bonham Carter relishes her relatively normal role as pharmacist Edith Ellyn (supported, unlike most of her friends, by her pro-feminist husband). Although she’s a fictional character, Carter modelled her performance on Edith Ellyn – the first female professional martial arts instructor in the Western world. The great-granddaughter of H. H. Asquith (who served as Prime Minister of the UK in 1908–16 and opposed the suffrage movement), Carter clearly enjoys the opportunity to rebel against her heritage and play a women extremely influential in turning words into action.
In terms of the real characters, there are quite a few. American legend Meryl Streep (who shouldn’t be on the poster because her cameo is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment) stars briefly as British activist and suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, Natalie Press plays Emily Davison (one of the heroines prepared to die for the cause) and Adrian Schiller as political statesman David Lloyd George. Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai complete the suffragette moment as angsty activists, while Brendan Gleeson (most known as Mad Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series) and Samuel West star as their opposition, a morally-torn policeman and a grumpy politician respectively.
Apart from its stellar cast, another thing that Suffragette does really well is portray all events honestly, and therefore at times, confrontingly. From the treatment of the women in jail, to the front-page horror the film ends rather bleakly on, this is a movie with no intention of watering down the truth. Women’s rights are, unfortunately, an ongoing issue, and rather than a traditional “happily ever after” Hollywood ending, Suffragette leaves its plot unfinished. Unresolved. Unhappy. Such is life…
Suffragette is out general release on Boxing Day.