07th Oct2015

LFF 2015: ‘Suffragette’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Natalie Press, Brendan Gleeson, Geoff Bell | Written by Abi Morgan | Directed by Sarah Gavron


Two of the most violent and disturbing films of the last year are both period dramas about voting rights. The first is Selma, the story of the march to that town during the civil rights movement in 1960s America. The second is Suffragette, a rousing, anger-inducing account of working-class British women’s battle for the right to vote. The reason the violence in these films is so much more effective than that of the average disaster movie or tentpole superhero flick is that it’s borne out of reality. When police beat a crowd of women into submission for voicing their protest at a heartless parliamentary ruling or a suffragette turns up to a meeting covered in bruises, it doesn’t feel like fiction. Most historical dramas are by nature of time, removed from their subject to a degree, allowing an audience a comfortable distance from which to coo at how foolish, romantic or quaint people were back then. Unfortunately for that audience, Suffragette almost feels like it could have happened yesterday, and that’s its biggest strength.

Its other biggest strength is the cast, led by Carey Mulligan’s Maud, a washerwoman confined to a marginal, underpaid existence raising her son and being wife to a husband who assumes her pay is part of his. As she is introduced to suffrage by new co-worker Violet (an irresistibly ballsy Anne-Marie Duff) and local chemist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter on unflappable form), the initially reserved Maud becomes a vocal proponent of the movement and finds herself rubbing shoulders with its leaders (namely Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep at a mercifully lower key than her Thatcher) and chief agitators. But being at the centre of such a controversial – and occasionally criminal – band of people gets her in trouble with the law, and having even an MP’s wife (Romola Garai) as a supporter doesn’t stop them being thrown in jail.

The brutality these women are subjected to for wanting to be more than second-class citizens is shocking, but they certainly give as good as they get; exploding postboxes, smashing West End shop windows and even blowing up a man’s house. Their actions are never lionised, but presented as the last resort of a group of people who’ve been pushed to the limits of their patience. There’s nothing rose-tinted about this view of early 20th-century London: with factories, tenement buildings and prisons shot in washed-out tones of brown and grey, Suffragette often feels like a POW movie than anything else, which is likely the intention.

Though there is gloom and sacrifice, there is also unity and (eventual) success, though it doesn’t happen within the constraints of the film’s story. That might seem unsatisfying at first – we came to see what they were fighting for, surely? But director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan have constructed a story that is equally about struggles as it is causes. Suffragette offers razor-sharp observations about absurd inequalities and abuses of power structures, some of which shamefully still exist. With that in mind, it would do the feminists who started the suffrage movement a disservice to tie things up in a bow and suggest that their work was done by 1928. In almost a hundred years some things have changed, but not nearly enough – and this film serves as hard smack in the mouth to remind us of that.

Suffragette opens the BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 7 – 18 October. Click here for more information and tickets


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