Set in 1912, a grey mist blankets London's East End and the inauspicious atmosphere of complacency creates a setting ripe for the dawn of the Suffragette movement. Sarah Gavron's Suffragette successfully tells the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a young, fictional woman, whose journey takes her from unwitting worker bee to feminist rebel, fighting for women's right to vote.
While it takes Mulligan's character over two decades to realize her political aspirations, Suffragette happens seemingly overnight. One minute Maud seems content with the backbreaking work she and her co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) endure, as long as it means she can rest comfortably enough with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their son George (Adam Michael Dodd). The next, she's compromising everything she's known for this new world.
Maud, who initially denies being a suffragette, is inspired by veteran suffragettes like Violet and Alice Haughton. She is then taken under the wing of Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a brilliant pharmacist and an outspoken advocate for women's rights.
After being wrongfully imprisoned, shunned by her indifferent community, and condemned by her husband, Maud is forced to realize that there is no calm way to overturn systemic issue.
While there's plenty of confrontation throughout, Suffragette was a slow burn with a gentle build to head - and quite frankly, not for everyone. It becomes increasingly difficult to watch as the bleak London background matches the prospects of these women. But this is a story that isn't - and shouldn't - be easy to watch.
Viewers will see Maud slowly blossom as she finally becomes her own person, only to shrivel back down as she attempts to find balance between her two worlds. How can she maintain her role of dutiful wife and mother if it means denying her womanhood?
In this monochromatic world, the only real light on the screen comes from the performances of the main characters. Carey Mulligan appears in almost every scene, but you never tire of her. She is incandescent on screen, her passion and devastation will light a fire in your heart.
Helena Bonham Carter is also stellar in her role of the wizened, tired suffragette who guides Maude through her path of self-discovery.
Anne-Marie Duff's character, who introduces Maud into the world of the suffragettes, goes through a somewhat mirrored transformation as she finds that standing up for the women's vote is not worth risking the life of her unborn child. Natalie Press, who plays the real-life character of Emily Wilding Davison, is a militant and almost crazed activist who ensures the Suffragette movement would make its mark on history.
Although the promotional materials for Suffragette might make this movie seems like another shoe-in Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep, that is likely not the case. While her role is important, Streep only has a brief cameo as the leader of the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. Her time on screen may have been short, but it gives a lasting effect. Throughout the rest of the film you can feel Streep's presence as if she is a good fairy looking down on the superb works of Mulligan, Bonham Carter, Duff, and Press.
The final images of the Suffragette leave you with a lingering sense of what this movie is really about. It may have used a fictional woman as the focus, but the story of Maud Watts was not unique or singular, but a thin stroke used to cover a broad canvas.
It might not captivate all audiences and doesn't hit every note, but the acting alone - and its avoidance of major pitfalls that period pieces usually fall victim to - is enough to overcome the flaws. The story of Suffragette is a good reminder of how far we've come, but also how far we still have left to go.
Suffragette will be released in theaters starting today (October 23).