With Sarah Gavron directing and Abi Morgan behind the screenplay, Suffragette has already got off to a storming start when it comes to finally bringing the heart wrenching and heart raising story of post-war women’s suffrage. And with an ensemble cast including Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Meryl Streep, we can already hear the chants and see the banners a-waving.
In a gritty East London, Maud (Carey Mulligan) spends her days avoiding the lecherous glances of her boss and scalding chemical burns in an almost entirely female staffed laundry, returning home to her husband (Ben Whishaw) and son. Rinse and repeat. That is until one afternoon on Oxford Circus opens her eyes to a new uprising as in a flash-mob swoop, women begin to smash the shop windows and release their rebel yell, ‘Votes for Women!’ And thus a suffragette is born.
From here, Maud is initiated into the secret (and not so secret) world of the Suffragettes – hidden rooms, after-hours meetings and political speeches alongside imprisonment, public shaming and the horrors of force-feeding. The action focuses on Maud’s torment between the women’s cause and her male antagonists – her ‘shamed’ husband, her seedy boss (Geoff Bell) and the ruthless detective (Brendan Gleeson) – and of course the deviously moustachioed prime minister, Lloyd George. All play well to their almost caricature roles as the criminal men – despite the women being the ones rioting around London. It’s a tricky dichotomy and one that contributes to the slightly uneasy feeling you may find yourself with on the walk home. What about the overwhelming resistance to the militant approach? The ones who chose to fight in a different way? These seem to be left at home in favour of the drama over the actual fighting politics.
Mulligan makes a plucky transformation from head-down worker to front line soldier, Helena Bonham-Carter is excellent as the forthright brains behind their mission and Anne-Marie Duff finally demands and earns her place in this strong supporting role as Maud’s key to the women’s movement. Though how Meryl made it on the poster is a mystery since her appearance as the great Emmeline Pankhurst lasts approximately 6 minutes…
With such a gap primed and ready for this film’s existence, it was an almost impossible task for it to live up to – besides, how do you represent a movement whose very cause is still being battled for today? A fact highlighted by the rolling votes for women stats in the credits. And therein lies the problem – and the frustration – with Suffragette. Try as it might to rally the troops of the new generation, it only serves to highlight how far we still are from the vision of these brave women.
Suffragette is out now on general release.
The 59th BFI London Film Festival continues until Sunday 18 October: bfi.org.uk/lff