Set in 1912 London, "Suffragette" is the first major film depicting the civil rights movement by British women to gain the power to vote. Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, "Suffragette" boasts an A-list cast of female actors and crew members in homage to the courageous women who sparked this invaluable movement.
Carey Mulligan portrays Maud Watts, a character compiled from many of the working class women who struggled endlessly to earn a meager living, and were drawn into the efforts of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Founded by the real-life Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the work of the WSPU was to "wake up the nation" through "Deeds not Words" in their battle to acquire "votes for women".
Maud, during a visit to pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) to have her young son diagnosed, becomes a person-of-interest to Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson). He has been keeping tabs on Edith due to her commitment to the Women's Suffrage movement, and now he has his sights set on Maud.
When a co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), at the laundry where Maud works, convinces her to speak before Parliament on her behalf, Maud realizes that she has the power to change by joining the ranks of these brave women. Enduring prison, forced feeding and endless harassment from the police, Maud becomes a force to be reckoned with in this sometimes violent world.
Morgan and Gavron were overwhelmed by the amount of history associated with the suffrage movement. They spent years accumulating information and consulting with historians. In the end, they decided to focus on a few real characters, such as Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), whose actions at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913 galvanized the movement, and create others such as Maud, Violet and Edith from diaries and other reading materials detailing the actions of the WSPU.
Mulligan is a stellar choice for Maud. She possesses a quiet earnestness that imbues her characters with a sense of honesty and courage. She was marvelous earlier this year in "Far From the Madding Crowd", and again here as the hapless laundress who yearns for a better future for all women. I love watching her on film.
Bonham Carter and Duff are equally important, and excellent. Bonham Carter has that fiery determination so necessary to this cause, and Duff's portrayal is heartbreakingly poignant. Streep's cameo as Pankhurst is rousing --- and oh so Streep.
"Suffragette" is an important film. We need to be reminded of those who went before us to institute change. These everyday working women were incredibly courageous. They endured unspeakable hardships, some, like unequal pay, we are still fighting for today. So hard to believe --- but I digress.
I don't care what David, or any other male critic writes --- "Suffragette" is a must-see, especially for all of the young women who find the word "feminist" so disdainful.
Opinion: See It Now!
A recent spate of historically-based films have proven to be exceptional entertainment even though the outcome is well-known ("The Walk", "Bridge of Spies"). "Suffragette" centers around the woman's movement that peaked in 1912 London, where hundreds of working-class protesters took to the streets to demand equal voting rights for their gender.
Starring Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, and featuring Meryl Steep as the movement's leader and inspiration, Emmeline Pankhurst, I didn't find the film overwhelming. It's not "Norma Rae", by any stretch. Despite its significance --- the newsreel footage of a funeral march to honor one of their own is a nice touch --- "Suffragette" suffers from an overload of extreme close-ups and jittery hand-held camera sequences.
Director Sarah Gavron and her chief photographer Edu Grau thought it would be effective if their actors weren't always sure the focus was on them. Using as many as four hand-held cameras at a time, I think the strategy backfires. Whether filming a street riot between protesters and the police, or Maud fighting with her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), this technique results in annoying distractions for the viewer.
As the real events of the period unfolded, women were beaten and arrested, attempted hunger strikes, and endured subsequent force-feedings. Production notes indicate that many men supported the suffrage movement, even going to prison themselves. I would have preferred more male support depicted in the film. Although Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) declares his utter disdain for the law, he is still compelled to do his job and enforce the abduction of the protesters.
Streep 's role is a cameo. She addresses a crowd from a balcony to deliver what is meant to be a motivational speech. As the women cheer, they drown out her most important lines, defusing the intended inspiration. This scene could have been better staged to allow for a more forceful effect.
The best part of "Suffragette" is Maud's relationship with her young son George. Played by eight year-old Adam Michael Dodd in his film debut, the youngster offers a nice performance when Maud's husband does the unthinkable as a parent.
Another historical note: Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Edith Ellyn, a protest leader and pharmacist who prepares the bombs that the group uses to blow up post boxes, is actually the great-granddaughter of Lord Herbert Asquith. He was the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1912, and a major force opposing the suffrage movement.
The closing credits inform us when other countries legislated voting rights for women, including the U.S. in 1920. That France and Italy waited until the mid-1940's was interesting, but not as surprising as Sweden finally passing laws in 1971.
"Suffragette" is ambitious and well-acted. But it's not the crowd-pleaser it might have been.
Opinion: Wait for DVD