Film Review: Suffragette

Sarah Gavron’s movie about British suffragettes will resonate with audiences because while it is a historical drama, its modernity is felt in the predicament of its working-class hero.
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Suffragette’s opening shot is of the cogs of a machine. The camera then moves to the busy floor of an industrial laundry where women are sewing, ironing and folding garments. One arrives late, and the man in charge threatens to fire her; although the woman is apologetic, he continues to castigate her. Another worker, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), creates a distraction, and the manager turns his attention to her. Later, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), the older of the two, thanks Maud, but it is apparent that all of these laundresses are at risk of verbal and physical abuse—and, as we soon discover, of sexual abuse.

British director Sarah Gavron (Village at the End of the World) immediately immerses her audience in the working-class world of 1912 London, but particularly that of her reluctant hero, Maud, a wife and working mother. In doing so, she and her screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) adopt an unusual point-of-view in their recounting of one of the most momentous civil-rights struggles in human history. Maud’s story is an amalgam of the nameless masses, the “cogs,” working women whose sacrifices, as evinced in Suffragette, were far greater than those of their upper-class compatriots.

Gavron matches style to content by eschewing the visual conventions of historical drama, such as glossy sets and medium-long-shot tableaux, for a muted palette and handheld cameras that stay mostly in medium close-up. The sets, including the laundry, are historically accurate, yet they also feel realistic, almost contemporary, an effect achieved through clever lighting and production design. Alexandre Desplat’s score seems to pick up on the notion that Maud’s journey is timeless, although the music is omnipresent and mixed to punctuate every emotion.

Maud’s burgeoning awareness of inequality occupies the first half of the film, which moves rather slowly, mapping the young woman’s home life with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and her son George (Adam Michael Dodd). Sonny works at the laundry, too. As Maud forges a closer alliance with the suffragettes, branded “Panks” for their allegiance to leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a cameo role), Sonny becomes by turns alarmed and disgusted—and then shamed.

While Maud’s personal struggle is backgrounded by actual events, Suffragette is never didactic. The film explains that the suffragettes had engaged in peaceful demonstrations for more than 50 years, and had for the most part been ignored by their government. Then, in 1906, Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Political and Social Union, made a decision that would dramatically alter the struggle for “votes for women.” She moved the WPSU office from Manchester to London. Their motto: “Deeds not Words.” British suffragettes dropped homemade explosives in mailboxes and cut London’s telegraph lines. As the film indicates, while reviled in all classes of British society, they nevertheless transcended their class differences.

Maud soon joins Violet, also a working mother, and the suffragette “cell” led by Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), the neighborhood pharmacist who worked her way up to the middle class. Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), an aristocrat, and college-educated Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), the latter a historical figure, are also members. The group is emblematic of the confederacy that, after World War I, resulted in some voting rights for British women, and by 1928 had won all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.

Suffragette’s narrative picks up momentum as Maud’s personal life unravels and her new “profession” takes hold. Up to now charting the “deeds” and Maud’s wavering commitment, the second half of the movie becomes her quest for identity and equality, not unlike the ongoing battle of working- and middle-class women around the world. The Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014) comes to mind, but while the hero of that movie has a sympathetic husband who supports her resolutions, Maud’s makes a shocking decision that permanently severs all of her ties to her former life.

Mulligan is excellent, as are nearly all the members of the supporting cast, especially Bonham Carter and Duff. Streep provides the charisma Pankhurst surely possessed, and Brendan Gleeson does a terrific turn as the head of a special police unit that stalks the suffragettes with newly designed portable cameras. That unit is a historical fact, as is the suicidal act of Wilding Davison depicted in Suffragette. She hurled herself in front of the King and his horse in order to garner his attention for the cause. Bonham Carter has an ancestral link to the events depicted in the movie. She is the great-granddaughter of Lord Herbert Asquith, the prime minister at the time, and an enemy of the movement.

Suffragette is an important film for many reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of movies about women’s historical or ongoing struggles for equality. The only “Pank” this critic can recall on the big screen is Mrs. Banks (Glynis Johns) in 1964’s Mary Poppins.

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