“Never surrender. Never give up the fight,” proclaims Meryl Streep as she takes on the iconic role of Emmeline Pankhurst, and for the Abi Morgan-penned film that focuses on the cause she started, that really is all she wrote. A small cameo that could be missed in a toilet break, isn’t dependant on her. The attention isn’t on the real-life leader to women rights but the fictional eyewitness to it all, and the film works just as well by doing so.
Wonderfully fleshed out by Carey Mulligan, Maude Watts is a woman like so many others at the end of 19th century London who are questioning the times they are living in and believe that change is due. Timid housewife to begin with, her eventual involvement with the fight for the vote sees her cross paths with some of the movements key figures including Pankhurst, Emily Davison and Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter).
If it were anyone else, these chance encounters Maude has with historical characters would be hard to accept, but Mulligan brings enough emotional depth to Maude to solidify her part in the history books, no matter how fictional she may be. More than a fly on a factual wall, our heroine suffers inevitable trials that come with the battle she’s joined, and hardens with every step she takes.
Stand out scenes are whenever Maude goes home to a family close to breaking point, and a husband who struggles to accept his wife’s activities (take a bow, Ben Whishaw). Brendan Gleeson also dominates as police officer Steed, a man who shows no opinion for or against Maude’s cause, simply there to uphold the law she’s so desperate to change. Of course we know the transition would come (as terribly late as it would be), but director Sarah Gavin’s display of the journey getting there is overall an impressive one. Come awards season it would be no surprise if Suffragette and Mulligan gets a mention. Like the subject matter and the characters involved, they’ve undeniably earned it.
Sometimes a blend of fact and fiction doesn’t work out but Sarah Gavin balances both exceptionally well. Meryl might play Pankhurst effortlessly in her fleeting cameo but Mulligan leads the charge. When award season comes, Suffragette should certainly get the vote.