Contains mild spoilers
Bold and enthralling, Suffragette is a powerful film that pays homage to the foot soldiers of the votes for women movement and highlights the personal sacrifices women, particularly working class women, made in their campaign for the vote.
Scriptwriter Abi Morgan opts to tell the story of one the greatest political movements in history from the point of view of Maud Watts, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, a fictional character who starts on the outside of the movement but who becomes embroiled in the fight. Wife, mother and laundry worker since she was 12, Maud finds herself in the middle of a spot of direct action window-breaking on a London high street. Another of the perpetrators is Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), who works in the same laundry as Maud and who initiates her into the world of secret meetings and increasingly dangerous assignments, as led by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), displaying her best stiff upper-lipped, middle class resolve.
Maud becomes a participant in the cause when Violet, due to make a statement to Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller) as part of his inquiry into women’s votes, is forced to back out. Maud steps, or is rather pushed, forward in Violet’s place. Her testament to a badly paid life scarred by the boiling steam of the laundry, a life that is all she has ever known, apparently wins over Lloyd George but isn’t enough to swing the vote in the women’s favour. Maud is there again when it is announced, on the steps of Westminster, that women are still to be denied the vote and when the crowd gets agitated, the police move in with brutal efficiency.
This is the start of a chain of events in which Maud becomes increasingly involved, such as the bombing of Lloyd George’s new house and the tragedy at Epsom racecourse. Her petulant husband (Ben Whishaw) and evil, abusive boss (Geoff Bell) play a part in her journey from slave to rebel. Mulligan keeps the emotion in check, ensuring that the key traumatic points of the film pay off, particularly the heart-wrenching scene where she’s separated from her young son and the gag-inducing scene where she’s force-fed while on prison hunger strike.
Maud’s story runs parallel with the wider struggle for equality, all seen through her eyes. The film broadens out to include a debate about the rights and wrongs of direct action and an examination of the role the popular press played in the unfolding events. The women’s tactics are based on headline-grabbing stunts that will deliver the cause to a wider audience. But these attempts to hit the headlines are thwarted by a media bound up with the government of the day in questionable relationships. (Interesting fact: Lloyd George’s new home, which the Suffragettes bombed, was commissioned by Sir George Riddell, a prominent newspaper proprietor.) The popular press’s refusal to cover the campaign in a positive way is one of the factors that led the women to more and more extreme actions.
Suffragette isn’t a film without flaws. Women of colour are under-represented and anyone with a proud connection to Manchester might baulk a little at the movie’s blatant disregard for the birthplace of the Suffragette movement. And Emmeline Pankhurst’s (Meryl Streep) fleeting appearance on a balcony above a rally is surprisingly awkward given the power of the actor playing her. The film also flounders a little when Maud finds herself at the defining moment in the suffrage movement: Emily Wilding Davison’s appearance on the racecourse at Epsom. Here, Maud is a passive figure who watches with horror, as did everyone on that day, as Emily (Natalie Press) steps in front of the king’s horse and is trampled to death. We hardly know Emily, and a little bit more screen time devoted to developing her as a fully rounded character rather than an exclamation mark in history would have added a powerful punch to the end of the film.
But ultimately this is Mulligan’s, or rather Maud’s, film and a great one at that, one that powerfully brings to life the very real and terrible cost that many women paid to get the vote (over 1,000 women were imprisoned during the campaign) and one that doesn’t shy away from the argument for direct action when all other avenues to change are closed.
Suffragette is on general release at Home, Manchester, and nationwide from Monday 12 October. It is also part of a season of films exploring and celebrating the role women play in affecting change – The Time is Now.