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Film Review: Suffragette

5th October 2015

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Focusing not on a legendary figure of the movement (although prominent on the publicity posters Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst appears for the briefest of scenes), Suffragette chooses to tell the story of a fictional laundry worker, 24-year-old Bethnal Green native Maud Watts.

Telling a fictional story, albeit a well-informed and historically accurate one, takes away the rhetoric and historical shadow that obscures the reality of the suffragettes: real, working women, whose lives to this point have left them with no choice but to demand change. The narrative of the one woman-amongst-many reminds us that the suffrage movement is not a long-ago event now consigned to the history books; it is a real story, about real people, with real – and devastating – consequences. Focusing on Maud allows the filmmakers to let the everywoman story to shine through, giving an entirely human face to a story that we might only know vaguely.

Script writer Abi Morgan – also responsible for Shame, The Iron Lady, Brick Lane and TV drama The Hour – has created a dialogue that is filled with weighty moments. The brief yet loaded script decisions are understandably focused on Maud, and the moments of realisation that lead her into her path of militancy - moments that fall like a dead weight on her conscience when she’s speaking to Detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson), or the owner of the laundry where she has worked her entire life, or even her own husband. A daughter named after her husband’s mother, who would have go on to have exactly the same life that Maud herself has lived, had she been born before Maud and her fellow suffragettes began their campaign? The decisions Maud makes come directly from the moments of realisation that we see her experiencing; her choices, clearly led to via the situations she finds herself in, are almost impossible to question.

The cast – it almost goes without saying – are exceptional; praise should go to Helena Bonham-Carter (ironically the great-granddaughter of suffrage opponent H.H. Asquith) and Anne-Marie Duff, but especially to Carey Mulligan, who as Maud offers a moving and vital performance as a woman with nothing left to lose. Her transformation into seemingly downtrodden East End wife and then into militant campaigner, apparently scared of nothing and unafraid of confronting the police, once again demonstrate her diversity as an actor and reminds us why she is one of the British film industry’s top young stars.

An understated but powerful performance from BAFTA nominee Natalie Press should be noted too; her role as Emily Davison (a woman whose story we all know) is tinged both with passion and with a little bit of madness. She might not be in every scene as Maud – almost – is, but as the conclusion draws near it becomes more and more certain how pivotal she is to both the narrative of the film, and to the future – and eventual outcome – of the campaign itself.

The most striking realisation offered by the film is how easy it was – and likely still is, in certain societies – for a woman to have the fabric of her life ripped away after such a seemingly tiny indiscretion. When Detective Steed tells Maud that she might lose her life before her battle is won, his words are loaded with much more meaning that he intends: of course Maud is likely to lose everything in her fight for constitutional rights. She already has lost everything, for seemingly the most insignificant of reasons. Not playing the dutiful wife at every opportunity? Not following her husband’s wishes to the letter? Shaming him, as appears to be the worst insult of all, in front of their community? As the credits roll we are presented with a list of years in which countries across the world granted women the vote. In some countries, of course, women are still waiting. Pause for thought indeed.

Suffragette has its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival opening night gala on Wednesday 7th October, and is released in UK cinemas on 12th October.

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