Directed by a woman, written by a woman, produced by women, with a cast fronted by women, Suffragette beats its feminist drum proudly as it brings stirringly to screen the fight for the female vote. It’s a story that’s been virtually invisible in cinema – confined to frivolous, fleeting mention in movies like Mary Poppins and Kind Hearts and Coronets – and has long been begging to be brought to life.
Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan reunite after 2007’s Brick Lane for a film set during the height of the volatility, that’s centred on a group of mostly fictional women. It begins in London in 1912 when the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, including Emmeline Pankhurst (played by an actress of appropriate stature, Meryl Streep), call for a national campaign of civil disobedience after decades of peaceful protest have born no fruit.
We follow foot soldier Maud Watts (the mesmerising Carey Mulligan), a wrung-out laundress drawn into the struggle by her feisty colleague Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who introduces her to local ringleader Edith, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter, incidentally, is the great-granddaughter of the scourge of the suffragettes, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, the man who torpedoed conciliatory legislation and approved the force-feeding of prisoners.
Although it shows these freedom fighters as the terrorists of their time, modern audiences don’t need convincing as to the righteousness of their cause. Instead, Suffragette asks the question: what did the vote mean to women like Maud? In answer, it illustrates the scale of her oppression: her years of unchecked sexual abuse at the hands of her employer; her punishing, poorly paid work that will likely drive her to an early grave; her lack of rights when it comes to her child; and her hope that all this could simply be different.
It shows how these women were routinely belittled and beaten, how the conspiracy to curtail them stretched from Westminster to their husbands at home (although sensitive performances from Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson mean key male characters are far from demonised), and how the fight transcended the classes by bringing together the Mauds and Violets with upper-class women like Alice (Romola Garai), united as they are by a common purpose. The film creates a moving contrast between the shame that wider society heaps upon them and the solidarity of the suffragists, who present Maud with a medal and a small bouquet of flowers after her first imprisonment, and pay for her lodgings.
Gavron’s powerful portrayal of the movement joins a long, prominent tradition of British political films, which have nevertheless tended to focus on men’s fights, or to put men at the fore, with notable exceptions like Cathy Come Home and Made in Dagenham. With its heart pinned to its sleeve, Suffragette is a far finer effort than writer Morgan’s oddly apolitical The Iron Lady, recalling instead her confrontational 2004 TV drama Sex Traffic.
Eschewing the rigid confines of period drama, Suffragette has been shot to evocative effect by cinematographer Eduard Grau (The Gift, A Single Man), and benefits from fluid, naturalistic visuals and a respectfully sombre hue. It’s rousing and heart-stopping when required – including the impact of the 1913 Epsom Derby scene – but it forgoes some of the brutality in order to reach a wide audience, with the fidgety camera relaying the fear and frenzy but taking some of the horror from the violence.
There are real women’s stories here that intersect too briefly and deserve their own films, but Suffragette is an inspiring introduction to a part of our history that’s been disgracefully ignored. It’s a tale that remains woefully relevant, and that in the hands of these film-makers is, finally, unforgettable.
Suffragette is released in cinemas on Monday 12 October