Cert 12A | ★★★★☆
“If we give women the vote, where will it end?” says a disgruntled Cabinet minister in Suffragette. “They’ll be wanting to be Members of Parliament next.” Well, here we are, not quite at the end, but closer to it than we were in 1912, when a faction of the women’s suffrage movement decided to turn militant. Windows were smashed, postboxes blown up and ministers’ houses rigged with explosives to get women the vote.
While this is all suitably boisterous cinematic stuff, Suffragette homes in on Maud (an award-worthy turn from Carey Mulligan), an ordinary working laundress from Bethnal Green, who gets swept up in the cause. It also features Anne-Marie Duff as her troublesome colleague and a pop-to-the-loo-and-miss-it cameo from Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, who comes out of hiding to give a motivating speech to the troops. Ben Whishaw also turns in a typically quiet and considered performance as Maud’s husband, who’s caught between being publicly shunned for his wife’s behaviour or breaking up his family.
“Deeds, not words” is Pankhurst’s famous refrain. If only screenwriter Abi Morgan had heeded her. Instead, the film is bookended by condescending captions that unfurl like a dogmatic history lesson. This unfortunate tendency to tell us what’s going on, rather than show us, leaves scant room for nuance.
There’s little discussion, for instance, about the women who supported non-violent protest, and WWI isn’t mentioned at all, even though it played an instrumental role in securing women’s suffrage. Potentially interesting, conflicted characters are also reduced to cartoons, such as Brendan Gleeson’s police inspector (“I’m just here to enforce the law”) and an oddly dull Emily Davison, the cause’s martyr who was trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
But while it isn’t the slickest or most surprising film, it is a powerful one. What Morgan does to great effect is focus not on female camaraderie, but on the extreme sacrifices made. Scenes of forced feeding and police brutality are gruelling to watch, even if you know what’s coming.
Protests are shot like newsreel footage, shaky and urgent, and it even endeavours to expose the gulf between the way middle class Suffragettes were treated compared to working class ones, who often racked up lengthy prison sentences because their husbands couldn’t afford bail.
Suffragette is too simplistic to be the definitive story of the movement, but it’s a worthy tribute that’s as bold and uncompromising as the women themselves.