Review: Suffragette

It’s hard to believe British women have only been able to vote for around 90 years, and harder still to believe that there are some countries that are only just allowing them to! Suffragette puts across the reality that women didn’t just protest and wear sashes to get the vote (like such depictions as Mary Poppins might have you believe), but engaged in serious, civil disobedience to get the attention of the masses. It’s both educational and thought-provoking, if a bit brief and insubstantial at times.

Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan (thereby actually being a film about women made by women), Suffragette tells the story of Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan) as she begins to get involved in the fight for women’s rights, encountering real-life suffragettes along the way. As well as the trailblazing leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maude meets and works with  Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press), having been initiated into the struggle by her co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Maude’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and cantankerous Irish detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson) are the most significant male characters, each giving a different perspective on the growing movement.

Carey Mulligan is a strange actress – at times I get why she’s so appreciated (Never Let Me Go is one particular example), but here I didn’t think she stood out much, despite being the lead. Maybe it’s because she’s a fictional character acting as our way into the plot, but other than a couple of scenes where she stands out emotionally, she almost melts into the background. Bonham Carter has redeemed herself from the dark days of starring in Tim Burton films however, playing the real-life Edith, whose core of steel keeps her going, and Duff’s Violet, who could have been an East End stereotype, is an interesting, nuanced (if fictional) perspective on the working class woman who’s had enough. As for Streep, it’s more or less a blink-and-miss-it appearance, but then she’s excellent in even a glancing performance – she’s that calibre of actor who can almost take on the character she’s playing immediately, so I felt I was watching Pankhurst give an impassioned speech. Press’ almost haunted expression meanwhile gives the tragic Davison a different perspective from the other women, as that person in a group prepared to do anything.Suffragette_poster

It’s quite hard to not be a stereotypical man in a film about women’s rights, but both Gleeson and Whishaw’s characters have shades of grey. You feel slightly sorry for Sonny because of the choices he feels he must make, and Whishaw plays him as a wounded, stubborn man who can’t quite change. The same goes for Gleeson’s policeman, who is sympathetic in many ways to the movement, but who has a job to do, and who must uphold the law despite what that means for the women he catches. Other men onscreen are no more than stereotypes – Samuel West’s upper-class politician, who tries to bury the movement even as his own wife assists it, and Geoff Bell’s slimy workhouse misogynist bastard, to name but two.

Ellyn’s husband Hugh, played by Finbar Lynch, is an (understandable) missed opportunity, as he portrays a man supportive of the movement, but has very little to do. I say understandable because the film doesn’t want to take anything away from the women who made the sacrifices, though it’s interesting to see in him and Sonny how the partners of those women face their own, different struggles and sacrifices.

The film looks very authentic – probably helped by large parts of London looking identical! You always feel a sense of place and historical reference, and the costuming and sets help enforce the grubby, crumbling parts of the city in contrast to the gleaming upper-class areas. Suffragette also introduced me to the fact that the women used guerrilla tactics (bombs, cutting communications, arson) to get their point across, and in that, and the subtle hints at the manoeuvrings behind the scenes of government both for and against, Suffragette is a valuable history lesson.

The film’s last moments depict the continuation for women’s rights beyond the events of the film, and are perfect in that they portray for the audience how far we’ve come, and yet also how far we have yet to go. I was also fascinated to learn that Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather was H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister at the time of the film, and who vehemently opposed the movement (you don’t find this out in the film, but it’s a great bit of trivia that actually adds to her performance)!

I said it was brief and insubstantial because it dives into the movement’s fight and then abruptly leaves after a significant event occurs. This, plus the focus on Maude, I thought took away from the larger struggle, and perhaps more focus on Pankhurst might have helped – the movement’s leader faced as many hardships as her supporters did, but Streep just flits in and out, and I would have liked to have seen more detail (and perhaps a slower pace, as Maude seems to get suddenly swept up in her revolutionary behaviour after wavering for very little time).

This film deserves your attention regardless of any faults though, and the screening I went to was very busy, which was great to see for such a political and female-focused film! I recommend Suffragette because it’s a very watchable history lesson above all else, with some good, small performances from its cast.


One thought on “Review: Suffragette

  1. Suffragettes are a classic example of how “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. They weren’t being taken seriously when protesting peacefully, so they escalated to more extreme action. Violence and assassination is not a good solution, but they felt that they were completely without choice. They were legally barred from so many modern avenues of dissent that they felt all they could do was get violent. Many even committed public suicide in protest (throwing themselves under horses etc.)

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