Writer: Abi Morgan
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Geoff Bell, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep
Running time: 106mins
The lowdown: Absorbing and emotional telling of the fight for women’s voting rights, likely to garner plenty of attention come awards season. Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron avoids chocolate box period cosiness, delivering a harder-edged experience than you may expect, and Carey Mulligan proves once more she’s fast becoming the actress of her generation.
The full verdict: The opening shot of a woman’s heel sending ripples through a puddle reflecting a sweatshop laundry sets the tone. The political, social and personal status quo is soon to be forever disrupted.
Adopting the 12 Years a Slave route this is Suffragette 101, with Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts our guide through a working woman’s lot in 1913 England.
Slaving in that hellish laundry, she and her female co-workers endure low pay, dangerous conditions and the constant threat of sexual assault from their leery boss (Bell).
When caught in the middle of a window breaking protest, part of the civil disobedience campaign promoted by Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, Maud spots colleague Violet (Duff) who draws her to the cause. Soon she finds herself addressing future Prime Minister Lloyd George as part of the movement.
But, when women are again denied voting rights, the downtrodden though resilient Maud begins a path to militant campaigner, nurtured by kind-faced radical Edith (Bonham-Carter).
This places her directly in the firing line of police brutality, prison humiliations and constant harassment from a burgeoning surveillance wing of Scotland Yard, headed by Brendan Gleeson’s sympathetic but unbending detective.
Abi Morgan’s script follows the standard self-discovery template, but this is light years removed from her work on the farcical The Iron Lady.
Not skimping on the sacrifices activists made for women’s suffrage, it scores in depicting a time when rigid class structure (Maud’s son salutes a portrait of the King every night before bed) and suffocating social practices also restricted the fight for equal rights. Maud’s husband (Whishaw) may be sympathetic, but he’s also master of their marriage.
Shooting on real locations with seemingly scant CGI tinkering, Gavron gives the film a modern, dynamic look that elevates it beyond BBC Sunday night drama and the cheery feel good of Made in Dagenham. Surprisingly, Suffragette frequently echoes Children of Men.
And like that film, it raises the notion that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. The bombing of public property, hunger strikes and what is essentially a horse-based suicide mission all draw comparisons with what would come later.
Morgan and Gavron ultimately do not reconcile this as much as gloss over it, but should be commended for even raising the point.
A principal female cast and crew bring their “A” game to a story they clearly want to get right, even if Meryl Streep’s three minutes of screen time as Emmeline Pankhurst surely means she can’t receive another Oscar nomination?
If there is any justice Mulligan will be in the running for major award consideration. Delivering her second great performance of the year after Far From The Madding Crowd she is magnetic, moving from mousey doormat to fire-in-the-belly protester.
With female oppression still very much alive around the world, Suffragette remains all too relevant.