It’s difficult to separate style from substance when watching Suffragette. The power of the film’s message being so intimately woven with our relatively recent history that it’s hard to distinguish the emotions of real life from those engendered by this piece of narrative filmmaking. Both are evocative and hard to face. But face them we must.
Sarah Gavron‘s film isn’t a Hollywood glamourisation or softening of the harsh realities (and the realities are harsh) of this imbalanced era, so as to make this a more palatable cinema-going experience, but instead a very well written (by Abi Morgan) and expertly directed fictitious account of one woman’s struggle amidst the increasingly desperate plight of the Suffragettes. That plight: to secure the vote for women in Britain. One pivotal scene, in particular, sees our protagonist called to speak in front of the chancellor of the exchequer about her life, her workplace and her pay. When asked, ‘what would the vote mean to you?’ instead of a predictably powerful and manipulatory Oscar-bait grandstanding moving monologue moment, she simply replies, ‘well, I never thought we’d get the vote so I’ve never really thought about it’. Within that honesty lies the film’s major achievement: a connection that is both believable and emotive.
Carey Mulligan plays that fictitious woman, Maud Watts, and our reluctant heroine. Key individuals from the period are named and featured, like Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and the celebrated martyr Emily Davison, but only in so much as they interrelate with Maud and her personal journey. This spells the success of Suffragette, amazingly the first motion picture to depict their cause in any detail, and by grounding the engagement of its audience in one historically unknown woman’s experience it magnifies its personal impact. What could have descended into apathetic distancing, resulting from yet another heart-string historical biopic, instead creates an Everywoman character who compels compassion. Delivered into Mulligan’s abundantly capable hands, her character arc strong enough to force you into caring, she leads another major movie with an ever increasing sense of surety.
And she finds herself at the fore of an electric piece of casting. Although Meryl Streep pays only a fleeting visit then this is accurate for the story here and feels right. She ably delivers in her few minutes screen time the kind of rousing performance one would expect, not stealing the show, just propelling it on its way. Helena Bonham Carter commands the respect deserving of her veteran position, as the highly educated and militant Edith Ellyn, with her husband shown as what must have been one of a very rare breed for the time: a male feminist. Anne-Marie Duff shines as the closest thing to a confidante and friend Mulligan’s Maud will find and a flicker of Natalie Press is enough, as she rounds off this perfectly picked ensemble, serving as she does as the film’s tragic climax.
It’s not just in front of the camera that women dominate, the overwhelming contributions to the production were female, which probably helped with the authenticity and inherent passion for the subject matter that comes across on screen. From the cinematography, set design, costumes through to the hair and make-up, the dedication to capture historical accuracy accentuates the message and does not distract from the whole, like a beautifully bound book of great importance.
Brendan Gleeson embodies the very intelligently portrayed male figure of justice, giving humanity to what is seemingly unjust subjugation. He knows the law is wrong but his job is to uphold it. An interesting representation, that even back then some people must have known the time for change was upon them but were allowed to hide behind society’s loopholes. Those of law and convention. To which, Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband, who simply cannot stomach the societal shame of his wife’s behaviour, with perfectly conflicted male pride. He loves his wife and child but he is the man and that turns out to be all he has.
Suffragette is a beautifully made film about the shockingly deplorable state in which women lived in this country just one hundred years ago. If that seems like a long time then read the end credits. Or look at the protests at the film’s premiere, just showing how prevalent the issues raised still are today. It strikes a poignant dichotomy of shame and inspiration, elegant filmmaking and human history. If you see one movie this weekend, see Suffragette.