As incongruous as it may sound, no film about the suffragette movement (British or American) has had a theatrical release. The closest we’ve come is the 2004 TV film Iron Jawed Angels, which depicted the US suffrage movement in the 1910s and starred Hilary Swank. This glaring omission makes Suffragette – the opening film at this year’s London Film Festival – all the more important.
Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a working class woman toiling away in an East London laundry. Her foreman, Mr Taylor (Geoff Bell) is sexually abusive and tyrannical, and the hours are long. She lives in a cramped flat with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and her young son George (Adam Michael Dodd).
When her colleague Violet Miller (an earnest, moving Anne-Marie Duff) introduces her to the Votes for Women campaign, Maud becomes increasingly committed to the cause. She’s helped by pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a leader among East London suffragettes. Bonham-Carter convincingly shows Edith haunted by her ideals – wearied by hunger strikes and numerous sojourns in prisons, yet single-mindedly persistent.
The women are under the constant surveillance of Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a police inspector, who while not without sympathy, is devoted to upholding the (often unjust) law and is convinced that the cause has no chance. Writer Abi Morgan has skilfully populated the film with complex male characters – from Sonny, who sees only shame in his wife’s activism, to Hugh Ellyn (Finbar Lynch), Edith’s husband, a member of the Men’s League, who is forced to impose on his wife in order to protect her health.
In a stroke of brilliance, Abi Morgan and Director Sarah Gavron chose to tell the story from the perspective of an ordinary woman. They introduce Maud, along with the audience, to the aims of the suffrage movement. This makes the film’s message all the more potent. Meryl Streep appears only briefly as Emmeline Pankhurst, the famous leader of the campaign. Casting her as a public figure was another clever move – her face is familiar both to the characters in the film and the audience.
Suffragette is a brave film, unflinchingly endorsing the sacrifices suffragettes were forced to make in order to keep campaigning. There are no apologies for any of their radial acts: the storyline makes it clear that after five decades of protest, imprisonment, and lack of interest from the press, they had little choice. Mulligan is heart-breaking, showing Maud steadfast in her aims as she gradually loses everything that she holds dear.
It is shocking that it has taken so long for a story of such importance to come to the big screen. Gavron argues that this reflects persistent gender inequality – and she’s likely right.