In the U.S., we revere Susan B. Anthony’s groundbreaking efforts for leading the fight for a woman’s right to vote in the late 1800s. In England, Emmeline Pankhurst, a feminist who used demonstrations, civil disobedience and violence to property for publicity and agitation, spearheaded their cause.
The director (Sara Gavron) and screenwriter (Abi Morgan, The Iron Lady) of Suffragette have chosen to tell the story of England’s movement through the eyes of a fictional working class character. This device gives them the freedom to create an intimate, personal story within the context of a large social phenomenon, and this choice makes their film fascinating and emotionally compelling. It also gives the film a nagging flaw.
In 1912 Edwardian London, following five decades of peaceful voting rights protests, the suffrage movement has lost momentum. The Suffragettes take to throwing bricks through shop windows to spark interests in their cause and interrupt business as usual. One day Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, Shame) a worker in a huge laundry, is on the streets caught in the middle of a suffrage protest. She notices that a fellow worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff, Nowhere Boy), is part of the melee.
Maud has worked in the laundry since she was a girl. Her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw, The Danish Girl) works there too, and they live within walking distance with their young son George. Violet talks Maud into attending a meeting of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), a legend in their feminist community who is on the run from the police.
Years of verbal abuse from a brutish and lecherous boss (Geoff Bell) and working conditions that endanger the health of workers make Maud curious then fascinated by the social progressiveness of the movement. She is further intrigued by WSPU members like the intellectual pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar nom The King’s Speech) and the wealthy Alice Haughton (Romola Garai). Fascination turns into participation and acts of violence against property. The group’s conduct is scorned by the local police and politicians. They conspire with an Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson, Edge of Tomorrow), who puts the women under surveillance. Maud risks, jail, beatings and the loss of her family.
The drab gray, brown and black colors established by art directors Jonathan Houlding (The Martian) and Choi Ho Man (Paddington), the authentic production design by Alice Normington (Nowhere Boy) and set decoration by Barbara Herman-Skelding (Nowhere Boy) recreate early 20th century London to a T. The costume design by Jane Petrie (28 Days Later) clearly distinguishes between the lower working class, middle class and upper class characters. Eduard Grau’s cinematography is perfectly lit during prison scenes, moments in Parliament and in Maud’s dark, cramp flat. Alexandre Desplat’s (The King’s Speech) musical score dramatizes the right moments. And Barney Pilling (Oscar win for The Grand Budapest Hotel) cuts the footage down to its core: 1h 46m. Essentially, from the second the opening credits are over, the visuals, soundtrack and rhythm are perfect.
Carrying the weight of the film’s serious subject is a vulnerable, inquisitive character who in her naïveté just wants the basics in life: a loving family, a safe working place and equality. Carey Mulligan has the right blend of innocence and strength. When her character is beaten and jailed, it breaks your heart. When Maud musters the courage to join in civil disobedience, with no background whatsoever in social issues or politics, you never question her motivation or commitment, and that’s due to Mulligan’s convincing portrayal.
Ben Whishaw, as the husband who endures public humiliation when his wife fights the good fight, is equally engaging. Bonham Carter, often too quirky in her film roles, plays the pharmacist and instigator as a very level-headed and determined lady. And Meryl Streep’s short turn, as the founder of the suffrage movement, is simply iconic.
Abi Morgan’s writing is subtle. The dialogue could have been strewn with platitudes, but it is not. Simple phrases like, “Deeds not Words,” prevail and the conversations between Maud and Sonny, as their relationship degenerates and they become estranged, are sad. Occasionally the screenplay feels a bit pat, but those moments pass.
Sarah Gavron nurtured this project for years before finding producers and a screenwriter. Her direction of a very complicated subject is never less than masterful. She choreographs the protest scenes that escalate into police brutalizing women, with deft skill. She guides the very private and loving sequences between Maud and her son with great sensitivity. And even the acts that depict damage to property are all perfectly handled, never sensationalized. Every scene fits. She sets and keeps a consistent, dramatic tone.
If the film has an imperfection it has nothing to do with the way it exhibits the riots and violence that mimic civil unrest around the world. Nor does it have to do with the casting, acting or production elements. When the film concludes, the Maud character, which was so real and sacrificed so much, seems a bit less special because she is fictional, a composite. She gave the filmmakers free range to embody so many aspects of the movement. But after the films’ abrupt ending, audiences may wonder why Pankhurst or suffrage martyrs such as Emily Wilding Davison were not the subject of this well-intentioned and well-crafted production.
Suffragette is a stirring history lesson, wrapped in a very compelling and intimate film that is riveting, educational and thought provoking.
It’s been many years since a feature film chronicled any part of the journey of the women’s civil rights movement. Why?
Visit NNPA Syndication Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.