Suffragette is a fictional interpretation of a very real moment in feminist and British history, using the working-class as the back-bone of political change. The struggle becomes impossible; its success even more so, which is perhaps why Abi Morgan chose to use socially blindsided women instead of the educated middle-class female who actually campaigned for change to tell this vitally important, and long-overdue, story in film.
The protagonist Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, is a woman prone to poverty, having worked in a laundry since her infancy and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her employer before her marriage. The film takes the angle of a troubled woman caught in the epicentre of something much bigger than her miserable existence. It exploits her one happiness, too: her family. Yet, even in and amongst the loss and heartache that Maud experiences supporting women’s rights, the film lacks the intended tension. You can see the emotion, but its attempt to evoke any in the audience falls short in parts, especially when Meryl Streep, playing Emmeline Pankhurst, has her speech. Distracted by the odd sound of Margaret Thatcher in Edwardian England, you lose track of what is actually being said.
Most attempts to immerse the viewer in Maud’s conflict and the painful repercussions it promises are not realised. The film is more factual than feeling. It is, however, an objectively sound film. If you ignore the lack of emotional gusto then you’ll find that the script is excellent, the characters diverse and the plot punchy. Helena Bonham-Carter as an intellectual with a career stunted by her gender and, in response, running a revolutionary movement in the back-rooms of her pharmaceutical business, is exceptional. No one else could have measured so perfectly propriety and cheek.
Careful not to confuse the drama with gore, the two visually explicit, arguably savage, moments in the film aren’t rendered vulgar by their portrayal. Instead, they provoke the only tangible empathy I felt while watching. The scene where Maud is force-fed is honest, but not to the point of sickening, while the second (which I will not spoil, but most can guess) is surprisingly understated. In a brilliant piece of cinema, the ending merges with actual footage from the day, reminding the audience of the authenticity of what they had just watched. It’s a clever paradox: fiction that is also fact.
A rolling list of dates detailing female emancipation in various countries was included before the credits. Perhaps most compelling, and certainly the hardest-hitting moment of the whole experience for me, was the last date: ‘Saudi Arabia, 2015: women are promised the vote.’
Suffragette proves not just to be a film of the past, but also one for the present.