Deliberately not a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst or indeed of any of the key figures of the Women’s Suffrage movement, Suffragette follows everywoman Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, Far From The Madding Crowd) on her journey from reluctant onlooker to full on militant activist as the violence escalates between the government and the Suffragettes during 1913 in London. It is “inspired by true events”, meaning that the history and the women who shaped it are in there somewhere, but the narrative is a constructed, fictional one which allows certain artistic liberties to be taken–something that the film can count as both a strength and a weakness.
Maud is a working class girl, working hard at a laundry house since childhood, like her mother before her. Married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall), she is the mother of an adorable five year old, George. She’s unhappy but used to it, resigned to a life of silence and servitude, until she is dragged to Parliament by her colleague Violet (Anne-Marie Duff, Before I Go To Sleep), where she testifies in front of a crowd of men in favour of granting women the right to vote. While the MPs seem sympathetic, the government decides not to amend the law, sparking protests which escalate into horrible police violence towards the indignant crowd of women gathered at Westminster. Maud is arrested and jailed for days, along with Violet and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, Cinderella), a well-travelled and educated chemist. This, to Sonny’s embarrassment and dismay, awakens Maud’s desire for equality. She is approached by Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary), a Southern Irish police officer whose one and only purpose is to uphold the law, and offered sanctuary in return for information on the movement.
As the violence escalates, and the elusive Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, Ricki And The Flash) advises that “deeds, not words” are the only way to make change happen, Maud joins Violet and Edith in destroying public property–exploding mailboxes, cutting telegraph wires, and even setting off a bomb at an MP’s house–in an effort to send a powerful message and get the Women’s Rights movement the public attention it is systematically denied. She loses her job, marriage, and even her son, until the cause is all she has left. As history blurs with fiction, we follow Maud into the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913, the day the suffrage movement got noticed by the world.
A passion project ten years in the making, Suffragette sets out to tell the story of the working class women with no money or prospects, the ones who got incarcerated and tortured by police–a fact little known by most. While it does achieve its goal, aside from one or two key scenes of police brutality the film feels rather superficial, barely scratching the surface of these women’s lives and their true, every day suffering. Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud, is given an elaborate personal storyline meant to endear her to us and make us relate; yet the speed with which she is recruited to the cause and yanked out of her former life doesn’t feel organic, but rather forced to suit the narrative, and it sometimes even distracts from the political events the film is so keen to educate us on.
Still, it is a solid film, made with love by a crew predominantly composed of women, and with mostly women in front of the camera. Carey Mulligan delivers an honest performance as Maud, and it is great to see Helena Bonham Carter play a character with more nuance, rather than yet another eccentric caricature. Fun fact (not fun, perhaps, but certainly fact): Bonham Carter is actually the great-granddaughter of then-Prime Minister Lord Herbert H Asquith, who remained firmly opposed to the idea of women voting throughout his period as prime minister–yet in the film she portrays a character inspired by the lives of several known suffragists, most notably Edith Garrud, a 4’11” Welsh lady who taught jujitsu to all the suffragettes so they can protect themselves from the police.
It’s interesting that the characters based on real people, like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press, Where I Belong), feel the least fleshed out of all, while those portraying amalgamations of several figures, like Edith Ellyn and Arthur Steed, are given more of a life of their own to inhabit. Streep is only in the film for a hot second, sporting a dubious British accent that instantly singles her out as the only non-Brit on the central cast. While she lends star power to the project (and in a timely fashion too, following her now famous reaction to Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech about the gender pay gap in Hollywood, as well as the screenwriting contest for women over 40 she held in New York earlier this year), it stands to reason that a British actress of the same caliber–Emma Thompson, perhaps?–could have carried the cameo a bit further.
While steering clear of by-the-numbers biopic territory, this will be one of the true-story films bound to dominate the awards season this year (and the perfect film to open this year's London Film Festival), not least because of the female star power it carries, both on and off screen. Sarah Gavron does an exceptional job directing a stellar cast, peppering handheld camera shots throughout the film to lend it an aura of immediacy. With fantastic production design by Alice Normington and costume design by Jane Petrie, it is very clear that attention has been paid to every detail, so the film looks and feels incredibly authentic, and the subtle score of Alexandre Desplat’s signature piano melodies transports us to Edwardian life and to the lives of incredible, fierce, and indomitable women.