Today’s films retell history with a startling immediacy. Major world events have barely begun when screen rights are being negotiated. In this context, the freshness and invigorating pace of Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette is all the more remarkable given the century that has passed since its stories took place.
The film is centred around Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a washerwoman in the East End of London with a life defined by conformity – to her husband, to her sexually abusive boss, and to the meekness that society expects of her. Maud witnesses an act of destructive civil disobedience by a group of suffragettes, and the seed of her deserved but withheld freedom is planted in her mind. Fellow washerwoman Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter) strengthen her belief in the cause, and Maud starts to take action that affects not just her life, but the lives of women everywhere.
Despite a motivational appearance from Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in rousing form) and another notable event that closes the film, the choice to represent an ordinary, unknown woman who is caught in the swell of protest was a smart one. Maud begins the film looking awkward, tired and dissatisfied with her grey life; her silence is enforced, not chosen. As the plot unfolds Mulligan grows into the character, and the audience feels her passion all the more. Gavron and writer Abi Morgan show how the fight for suffrage wasn’t just for votes – it was for the same rights afforded to men, whether that be equal pay (astoundingly STILL not achieved), the right to see one’s children or simply basic decency and respect.
The best moments are those involving action, due to some excellent frantic camerawork and shocking but potent sound design. Every thump from a policeman’s truncheon and every anguished scream is felt to the core, as are the explosions and smashing of windows. Mulligan spoke at the premiere about how refreshing it was to do action scenes where the woman doesn’t have to wear lycra; the power of these scenes within the film is proof that we need more of them. The force-feeding of Maud reminded me of the stark brutality of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, another film about a disgracefully ignored period of history.
London of the 1910s is faithfully rendered by the production team – the consistently damp colours make for an immersive world, where increasingly grand buildings represent the social barriers seemingly too large for the women to scale.
It is wonderful to see a cast and crew dominated by talented women, and a film in which every conversation is about and/or involves them. One of the film’s many eye-catching posters proclaims ‘the time is now’; the time is now at the very latest for equal representation of women in the arts. Suffragette is really good, but women should not be restricted to making films about the struggle of being a woman.
It would be remiss of me to write about Suffragette without mentioning the inspiring actions of the women who stormed the red carpet at Wednesday’s premiere to protest the appalling cuts to domestic violence services across the country. They chose their moment perfectly; in one conversation with Brendan Gleeson’s sanctimonious Inspector Steed, Maud explains why withholding the vote and detaining protestors is part of a patriarchal war on women. Terrifying domestic violence statistics show that war is still going on. This is a film that celebrates the actions of a brave and under-appreciated group, but more importantly encourages further conversation on the ongoing injustices perpetrated upon women.