Thursday 3 January 2019

Movie Review: Suffragette (2015)

A historical drama, Suffragette is the harrowing story of women's struggle to win the right to vote in England of the early 1900s.

It's 1912 in London, and 24 year old Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a laundry worker married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and caring for a young son. On the streets, the movement to allow women to vote is gaining steam, led by the reclusive Mrs. Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), who is mostly in hiding to avoid arrest. Adopting a "deeds not words" slogan, she advocates acts of civil disobedience. Maud starts to interact with the suffragettes, including coworker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) and activist Emily Davison (Natalie Press).

Maud witnesses political indifference to the cause and police brutality against the women. After a raucous protest she serves a stint in jail, and starts to drift away from the humiliated Sonny. Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) is assigned to conduct surveillance to try and stop the women's activities, and Maud is drawn deeper into a movement increasingly flirting with danger.

A mostly fictionalized account but drawing on the real stories of Mrs. Pankhurst and Emily Davison, Suffragette is a jarring reminder of how recently women were treated as second class citizens in supposedly civilized democracies. Even in a country ruled over by queens since the 1500s, it was early in the twentieth century that the movement to allow women to vote spilled into the open in an attempt to force change.

Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, the film takes an unblinking look at the consequences of dedication to a just cause. Gavron succeeds in conveying the enormity of the challenge inherent in standing up to an entrenched patriarchy. In a society run by men and according to laws written by men, the suffragettes are imprisoned, fired, humiliated, and cast aside by their employers, husbands and politicians. And when they go on hunger strikes as political prisoners, they are brutally forced fed using medieval methods.

Suffragettes takes care to portray the women not as remarkable heroines, but rather as normal wives and mothers forced into action. Maud is the entry point to the story, and her path to becoming a suffragette stems from an awakening to her horrid working conditions once she observes the sexual abuse heaped on Violet's daughter. Maud herself had uncomplainingly tolerated similar treatment at a younger age. Now the inequity in how men and women are treated and paid, women's limited work and education opportunities, the inability for women to have political advocacy and Pankhurst's calls for deeds come together to nudge Maud towards activism.

As the campaign drags on the mostly leaderless women argue about strategy and how far to push actions that damage property and cause potential harm, at the same time as they pay an exceptionally  high price in their private lives and health.

Carey Mulligan is the warm heart of the film, her controlled and affecting performance allowing Maud to credibly evolve from meek worker and wife to spirited and respected activist, a woman who literally finds her voice in front of both men and women.

The film recreates early 1900s London, and particularly the working class East End, with the brown and grey hues of the second industrial age. The aesthetic is a suitably grim reflection of the women's plight, as the world stands at the threshold of a great war. Nations are about to enter a massive conflict, but the guns will not be louder than the voices of courageous women.

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