With a splendid array of British talent involved, from the likes of Romola Garai, Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Mulligan, it would be incredibly difficult for fans to resist the new historical drama Suffragette. Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, and not forgetting the University of Lincoln’s very own Professor Krista Cowman who worked as the film’s Historical Advisor, Suffragette is a somewhat formal and conservative account of a revolutionary chapter of British history that is often underrepresented on screen.
Leading up to Suffragette‘s release, the promotional campaign hasn’t been an easy ride for those involved. The film has been criticised for underrepresenting women of colour and last week, leading actors Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai, Anne-Marie Duff and Meryl Streep faced criticism as they posed for Time Out London, with t-shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, a quote taken from Emmeline Pankhurst. Some social media users and journalists were quick to point out the connotations of slavery and that the t-shirts ignored the historical context of the word ‘slavery’. The premiere was also brought to a standstill as feminist group Sisters Uncut staged a lie-in on the red carpet as they protested against cuts made to domestic abuse services.
Returning to the film, however, Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a laundry worker in pre-World War I who, against her husband’s wishes, finds herself in the epicentre of the militant and violent Suffragette campaign. After accidentally becoming involved in a Suffragette scuffle on the streets of London, she slowly befriends a suffragette, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and ends up, in a bit too neat fashion, testifying in Parliament. From then on, Maud becomes entangled in the Suffragette web, right at a pivotal moment where they faced disappointment by the promises of official sympathy from David Lloyd George. Slowly but surely, Maud faces arrests, prison and unemployment, and her marriage to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) breaks down.
Suffragette is a slow-moving yet valuable film that shows a side of the movement that is often ignored in film. There were the white privileged middle class women who provided vital connections, like wife of MP Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), and were and still are subjected to teasing with the likes of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. Suffragette, however, focuses on the working class women, like Maud and Violet, who faced imprisonment and abuse and acted as foot soldiers for the campaign to introduce votes for women.
There are historical figures who appear in the film; Meryl Streep provides a fleeting and aloof cameo as leader Emmeline Pankhurst whilst Natalie Press portrays Emily Wilding Davidson, the suffragette who created headlines across the globe as she died from being hit by King George V’s horse at the 1913 Derby. Writer Abi Morgan provides a solidly researched and well-argued point that Emily Wilding Davidson was attempting to attach a suffragette banner to the horse, rather than deliberating being hit by the horse. However, the real spark in the Suffragette ranks comes from Helena Bonham Carter who portrays pharmacist and covert munitions expert Edith Ellyn, who refuses to give in and leads the group to vandalise an opposing MP’s home.
Where Suffragette shines through the most is not in the notable moments, like Emily’s death at the Derby or Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech, but in the melodramatic moments such as where Maud faces the breakdown of her family or the harsh force-feeding in prison. Director Sarah Gavron provides a simple and effective account of the Suffragette movement. It is not overly stylistic and does not tidy up the brutal reality. The film does what it says on the tin: it shows the bleak and harsh reality that the women faced and is an overdue depiction of a piece of British history, often forgotten in the educational system, literature and cinema.
Unfortunately, the ending did feel abrupt but it was made up by Maud’s character, as Carey Mulligan throws herself into the role with such raw emotion. Despite this ending, thankfully Sarah Gavron does not end the film implying that the fight for women’s equality was over in 1918, listing the years in which other countries introduced the vote for women, including Saudi Arabia who has yet to do so.
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