The Watchers

The Watchers

Monday, 16 November 2015

Review: Suffragette (UK Cert 12A)

It's a sobering thought to realise that the UK has only had universal suffrage for less than a hundred years. It was 1928 before all women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote; in 1918, women and men over 30 who met certain property criteria could vote. The suffragette movement, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst, would often use civil disobedience to make their points. Many suffragettes were imprisoned and several gave their lives for the cause. 

Written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) and directed by Sarah Gavron, Suffragette tells the story of the women's suffrage movement through the prism of a fictional character, laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who gets caught up in a suffragette riot on her way from work. She gradually becomes more involved in the movement which causes friction at home and work. Meanwhile, the suffragettes resort to more and more extreme measures to get their voices heard.

Mulligan's performance as Maud is just superb. Maud really goes through the wringer, imprisoned, beaten and (in one particularly unpleasant scene) force-fed, then ostracised from family and friends for daring to speak up. The irony is at the beginning Maud isn't at all interested. Mulligan has some great scenes opposite Ben Whishaw, who plays her husband Sonny, who is opposed to the movement. There's a particularly well-written scene where Maud asks Sonny what they would have called their child had it not been a boy. I fully expect to see Mulligan's name crop up in the upcoming awards season as this is a truly brilliant performance. 

Helena Bonham Carter is similarly excellent in her role as Edith Ellyn. Ellyn is a fictional character, although based in part on a suffragette called Edith Garrud. Ellyn is a chemist and one of the instigators of a more extreme type of protest. I fully expect to see Carter recognised in awards season too. Meryl Streep is as good as always as Emmeline Pankhurst but, if she's onscreen for longer than five minutes, I'll be surprised (which does make the poster slightly misleading). She gives a rousing speech from a balcony and then disappears into the back of a cab. Whilst the story of the suffragette movement would be whitewashed without a mention of Pankhurst's role, I do wonder about whether this scene is particularly needed.

Other performances are similarly strong: Anne-Marie Duff is a strong presence as Maud's workmate Violet Miller who helps get Maud into the movement and there's a good turn by Romola Garai as a local MP's wife who is also sympathetic to the cause. FInally, Natalie Press is powerful as Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette whose actions at the Epsom Derby brought the movement to widespread attention. 

In terms of the male characters, you may expect them all to be unsympathetic oppressive bastards. This isn't entirely the case, although both Samuel West and Geoff Bell fulfil those roles as the local MP and the lecherous laundry boss respectively. Whishaw's performance is strong but Sonny's sympathy only extends so far before social pressure becomes too much for him. Similarly, Brendan Gleeson is good as Inspector Arthur Steed, a man charged with finding and dealing with any suffragette actions. He has some particularly good scenes with Mulligan as Maud and Steed clash heads.

So, it's well acted, well written for the most part (the script manages to mostly avoid the tendency to be overtly preachy), and the period detail is impeccable. However, the whole thing is let down by some frankly nauseating camerawork. It uses the handheld approach for scenes that really don't need it which does detract from what's actually going on in the scene.

That niggle aside, this is a well made film about an important part of British history and should be seen widely.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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