By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service (TNS)
The story of women fighting for the right to vote is all too recent, and for some, all too forgotten. Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan bring the history of the British suffragette movement to bear in the film Suffragette, as a reminder of the struggles that have come before, and the achievements that have yet to be won. The resulting film is dark and unglamorous, but it burns with a determined fire, giving these women a revolutionary hero treatment.
Suffragette is carried by the excellent Carey Mulligan, who does career-best acting in an unshowy role. Her Maud Watts is a fictional stand in for the working class women drawn into the movement in the early 20th century, fighting alongside real historical figures Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a glorified cameo) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press). As Maud, Mulligan is drawn and wan, her eyes tired, her mouth pulled into a wry, sad smirk, like she can’t even believe her situation herself. From a contemporary perspective, it’s hard to comprehend the realities of this brutal, bloody battle.
Maud works in a huge industrial laundry run by a sadistic, lecherous man, Taylor (Geoff Bell). As she testifies before a government committee, she was born there, her mother carrying her on her back while she worked. Maud started work at age 7, and at 24, the dangerous, injurious work of steam, irons and clouds of linen are all she’s ever known. Her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), is passive, cowardly. The greatest, and only, joy in Maud’s life is her small son, George (Adam Michael Dodd).
At the laundry, her mouthy friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) starts to spout off about “Votes for Women!” and with the prodding of proud suffragette pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), and upper-class activist Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), Maud is soon embroiled in the fight.
Spurred by entreaties to civil disobedience espoused in Emmeline Pankhurst’s secret speeches, they become a group of feminist terrorists, which garners the attention of law enforcement. Like many other freedom fighters and revolutionaries throughout history, they are subjected to government surveillance, imprisonment and torture while fighting for their rights. These suppressive actions, enacted by a group of men scared to lose their power, only inspire the women to fight back with even more ferocity.
The torment that Maud is put through is devastating, but Suffragette, as a film, often robs itself of its own emotional power. The film is shot with hand-held cinematography, which helps to bring an immediacy to early 20th century London. But during dramatic moments, the handheld close ups are chaotic and confounding. During a powerful scene where Maud stands up to her nemesis, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), her face is partially obscured by his shoulder. It could be a visual metaphor for the continued presence of oppressive patriarchy that obstructs her path, but it’s also a frustrating obstacle in the audience feeling Maud’s vigor when she fully comes into her own power.
Despite these questionable aesthetic choices, Suffragette successfully ties together varied themes that place the movement within a wider context of civil rights struggles. The right to vote is motivated by economic and labor issues, and stoked by government persecution. This revolution looks like others that we’ve seen on screen, and the film legitimizes it while also offering a stark reminder that the fight is far from over.
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3 stars out of 4
Rated PG-13 for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw
Directed by Sarah Gavron
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
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Photo: (From L to R) Actresses Ramola Garai, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan pose at the Gala screening of the film “Suffragette” for the opening night of the British Film Institute (BFI) Film Festival at Leicester Square in London October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor