Film Review: Suffragette (2015)

“You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable”

Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, Suffragette offers a rather striking perspective on the women’s suffrage movement, inventing a working class character and following her political awakening at a key moment in the fight for women’s rights. Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts is a dutiful wife and mother, working long, thankless hours at a Bethnal Green laundry whose chance encounter with a riotous group of suffragettes slowly rouses something within her.

This is where Morgan and Gavron’s approach pays dividends, in seeing the movement through working class eyes away from the privilege and relative freedom of the leaders. Even on a shop-floor full of much-put-upon women, suffragette is spat as a dirty word and in the close-knit neighbourhoods too, the leap that Maud has to make to merely stand up for what she believes is right is that much more difficult, more life-changingly dramatic and Mulligan is truly superb in tracing this transformation.

As her feckless fella (a snivelly Ben Whishaw) falls short and her son (Adam Michael Dodd doing some of the most distressing crying I’ve seen in ages) keeps her grounded, Maud’s realisation that reform needs to be fought for as the system fails women time and time again is fiercely felt and backed by allies Violet (a superb Anne-Marie Duff) and Edith (Helena Bonham Carter in something of a recent career highlight), that fight becomes all too real.

Battling the police in the form of Brendan Gleeson’s gruff Inspector Steed becomes its own mini-drama, the trips to prison becoming increasingly brutal culminating in a truly distressing scene of force-feeding. And the increasing forms of protest, stoked by a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst herself – Meryl Streep nipping into for a few minutes’ inspirational work – become ever more extreme (Bonham Carter really impresses with her casual recklessness here, contrasted well by Finbar Lynch as her faithful husband).

The cast contains an embarrassment of riches so even more minor roles are filled with real talent with theatrical spots aplenty. Romola Garai’s (currently kicking the habit in Measure for Measure) middle-class recruiter is compassionately played, the brilliant Amanda Lawrence is a key activist in the group, the government contains the likes of Sam West, Adrian Schiller and Nick Hendrix, and Lisa Dillon (recently announced in Hampstead Theatre’s Hapgood) pops up briefly too.

The partial nature of the storytelling is essential, to try and encapsulate the whole history of the suffrage effort would be a hiding to nothing and this is acknowledged rather brilliantly as the film finishes. Though this story ends in 1913, there’s tribute paid to the journey that continued, both in the UK and also in the rest of the world (including the incredible statistic about Switzerland), a neat nod to the movement as a whole and one which shouldn’t be used to undermine this film.

Shot with style by Gavron and cinematographer Eduard Grau, Suffragette mixes conventional shots with jerky handheld work which allows the viewpoint to be utterly submerged into the mêlée of protest and pandemonium, this freshness of vision making it much more than a dusty period drama and giving it the kind of immediacy that makes it that much more thought-provoking. I mean, it’s not like women will still be having to battle government stupidity in the 21st century over issues like taxing sanitary products…

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