Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Suffragette’: Well Done, Sisters

Given the subject matter — and the smart and sensitive way it’s handled — it’s no surprise that Suffragette was directed and written by women, both of whom have related personal and professional experience to draw upon. Director Sarah Gavron is the daughter of Felicia Nicolette, London’s first (and consequently first female) Deputy Mayor, while screenwriter Abi Morgan is best known for penning The Iron Lady. The movie is a richly detailed period piece but the struggle it dramatizes  — and the very real danger its characters face — is always present. There isn’t much time for tea and crumpets when you have mailboxes (not to mention politicians’ country houses) to blow up.

As the title implies, Suffragette is Maud’s story, but Mulligan is surrounded by a first-rate supporting cast. Meryl Streep (Morgan’s Maggie Thatcher) is Emmeline Pankhurst. She’s barely onscreen but her mythic presence drives most of the action. Helena Bonham Carter is very strong as Edith Ellyn, a pharmacist and WSPU ringleader, based in part on martial artist Edith Garrud, the cause’s bodyguard. Anne-Marie Duff is particularly fine as laundry worker Violet, who leaves the movement to have a baby. Ramola Garai provides a different perspective as the upper class wife of one of the politicians fighting against suffrage. And, Natalie Press is quietly moving as real-life martyr Emily Davison. Davison’s public death at the Epsom Derby in 1913 is often credited as the event that turned the tide for England’s suffrage movement.

Men, as a group, don’t fare as well in Suffragette. Maud’s husband is not unkind but is clearly a product of his time and circumstances. The laundry owner is appropriately repugnant. The politicians are bigoted, manipulative and despicable. It would be tempting to write all the men off completely if it weren’t for a rather surprising exception. Inspector Arthur Steed (powerful Irish actor Brendon Gleeson) is brought in to squash the activists as he did the Fenians when they fought for independence. He is ruthless, yet more intelligent and oddly enough more sympathetic to Maud and her sisters than the government he’s serving. Their scenes together are memorable (as are so many in this movie).

“I uphold the law,” he tells her.

She answers, “That means nothing to me. I’ve had no say in making the law. . . We break windows. We burn things, cause war’s the only language men listen to.”

Women’s rights are a complicated subject. They were in 1913; they are today. And, Suffragette is a complicated movie. It’s dark and often difficult to watch. There are scenes of violence (police brutality, prison force-feedings) and a constant sense of threat. But, it’s a powerful movie. And an important one. Hopefully Suffragette will get the audience it richly deserves and inspire more filmmakers to mine those troubled times for stories.

 

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  • joanna c. migdal November 3, 2015 at 10:15 am

    I saw the movie at a screening and have been spreading the word. Yes, very powerful indeed. I would recommend that audiences stay in their seats at the very end when there is a scroll of listing of countries and dates of women’s voting rights….very shocking, as you’ll see.
    thank you for sharing this very well-done review!

    Reply