Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep
Director: Sarah Gavron
Writer: Abi Morgan
In this day and age when voting in the UK, as well as every other free country in the world, is an assumed and inalienable right, it’s easy to forget how fiercely (and recently) some people had to fight to win that right, especially women. It hasn’t even been a hundred years since Britain was a country where women strove, fought, sacrificed and even died for the right to vote. Voting is a vitally important right and is quite possibly the single most fundamental thing we all do as citizens of democracy which is why the Women’s Suffrage Movement is such an important and powerful story. The resolve and vigour they displayed and the hardships they endured serve as an inspiring example to us all. Suffragette attempts to depict and realise this struggle in a dramatic form by focusing on the story of a single woman in the middle of it all.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a working class wife and mother who gets drawn into the Women’s Suffrage Movement almost by accident when her kind and caring nature compels her to stand up for her ill-treated co-worker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff). Through Violet, herself a determined suffragette, Maud falls into the company of such women’s rights activists as Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). As she learns more about this movement and comes to identify more with the cause, Maud becomes more and more active much to the detriment of her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the local police officer Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the peaceful protests orchestrated by these women yield little results, the suffragette champion Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) entreats them all to resort to more extreme methods.
The decision to focus this story on a working class foot soldier caught up in the middle of this movement was a wise move on this film’s part. The sacrifices she makes and hardships she endures have greater resonances because she has more to lose than those that are better off. Maud depends on her work and her family to survive and would be destitute without either of them. As the struggle becomes greater and more unbearable, it becomes more difficult for Maud to decide whether this cause is bigger and more important than her own needs and those of her family. As well as the social and economic sufferings that Maud undergoes her perspective in the front lines of this movement provides a window into the other sufferings women endured. These women include the bold, working class Violet who finds herself powerless to oppose the sexual violence of her boss, the passionate, middle class Edith whose activism drives her towards extreme and unhealthy lengths, and the earnest, upper class Alice who despite her status feels powerless as she does not hold the right to control her own wealth and estates. The portrayal of the men also proves effective with Sonny serving as a working class man desperate to avoid any negative attention brought about by his wife and Steed as an ambivalent officer whose duty to the law trumps whatever personal feelings he might have.
Unfortunately there are a few issues I have with this film that I think prevent it from being the Selma of the women’s rights movement. One is that the film’s climax hinges on a real-life tragedy involving a character who doesn’t get nearly enough development. Maybe the lack of focus on this character was so she would stand as more of a symbol for all suffragettes by the film’s end, but I feel like the tragedy would have had a bigger impact on myself as well as the audience if we understood more about who this woman was, what she stood to lose and what the right to vote meant to her personally. Another issue I have, which admittedly is less to do with the film itself and more to do with its advertising, is Meryl Streep whose presence in the film is much smaller than the trailers or posters would have you believe. While she plays Emmeline Pankhurst well with all of the dignity and authority befitting her character, she’s only in the film for one scene. Her performance is essentially not so much a supporting role as it is a cameo. Even though I don’t have any particular problem with the performance itself or the character’s role in the overall story, I couldn’t help but feel misled.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement is an intense and harrowing tale and it takes a powerful film to depict it. Suffragette is not quite that film but it comes pretty damn close. The cruelties and oppression inflicted upon these women are depicted well and the entire cast succeeds admirably in portraying them. It’s only a want of a more refined focus and greater development that prevents this film from being the masterpiece it could’ve been. The film does end on an effective note as it lists the countries that now allow their women to vote and the years in which their suffrage was granted, some of those years being embarrassingly recent. Looking back it is astonishing how far our society has come in the last century in terms of women’s rights and feminism and, while there is still a way to go, this film serves as a reminder of the enduring bravery, strength and resolve of these women that lives on today and continues to inspire progress and change.