Back when I was in school and trying to figure out my “options” for my GCSE years, the one subject I wanted to do without a moments doubt, was history. We’d spent the few years previous learning about the world wars, ancient Egypt and all kind of interesting guff in between so I was instantly sold. Day one of year 10 (more or less 9th grade for those in the States) I regretted my decision instantly. No more wars and politics, no more Egyptians or Tudors. Women was where I would be spending the next two years. Women at work, women’s votes, the whole nine yards. I was livid. I’m not, and wasn’t, anti-woman or anti-feminism or any of that primitive, Neanderthal bollocks. What I was, and still am, is anti-bored off my ass reading about shit that I don’t find interesting.
Luckily, and happily, a few weeks in and it turns out that women in history, and women’s fight for equality and the vote in particular, may be some of the most interesting parts of history that I’ve ever spent time reading about. An impossible struggle that women would certainly never win, made possible by sheer force of will and determination. It is maybe one of the most impressive feats in history and now, finally, we get a film that promises to tell the story of England’s “Suffragettes” with respect and dignity and what better name for it? Suffragette.
Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, Suffragette takes place in 1912 London, just as the movement was hitting its peak and the working class women fighting for the vote are beginning to escalate from the peaceful protests that have failed miserably for so long, to the strong-arm tactics that made the movement famous and eventually got them the vote. It’s at this turning point that we meet Maud, a woman who has worked in an industrial laundry since she was a little girl and is sitting on the sidelines, watching the movement from outside of it and keeping her head down and out of trouble. When the government offer to hear arguments from the women who work in London, Maud is the only person to step up in support of her friend and fellow laundry worker Violet, a proud suffragette who will be speaking at the Houses of Parliament and hoping to garner support from David Lloyd George – the then Chancellor of the Exchequer who would go on to be Prime Minister a few years later – and maybe give the movement some well needed and well deserved traction in government.
On the day of the visit to London’s centre of government, Violet arrives quite badly beaten up and unable to stand in front of the men of the government. Taking her place at the Palace of Westminster, Maud tells her story to a room full of MPs who don’t necessarily agree with her stance or that of the suffragette movement and unwittingly finds herself hip deep in the movement she tried so hard to stay away from. Things get progressively worse for Maud when her usually supportive husband takes a dislike to the path she’s found herself on and begins to resent her for what she is becoming and the ideologies that she has begun to fight for.
As the campaign of not-so-peaceful protesting heats up, so does Maud’s struggle both with her conscience and her family. With odds, and the law, always against her and the suffragettes and the struggle seeming almost impossible at every turn, it’s only a matter of time before something has to give and this long-fought endeavour for women’s equality will come to a head.
I went into Suffragette with very high expectations. The story of these women that put everything on the line to get the most basic of rights that we take for granted nowadays is one that’s always needed telling and it ended telling well. With today’s climate being the way it is, and women’s rights being almost as fragile now as they were back then, there was a lot riding on this film being something of a beacon for women’s rights and equality. Thankfully, the film does a splendid job in almost everything it does and tells its story with a level of class and decency that most films would only dream of getting to, stumbling into clichés all the way through.
Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Maud, the long-suffering laundry worker whose priority is her family over her wanting the vote, is stunning. This woman who fell into becoming the film’s unwitting poster child for the movement led by world famous names like Emmeline Pankhurst and whose biggest challenges come after she starts to fight for her rights. Anyone that doesn’t feel for this woman as her family falls apart and her life is torn to pieces after being pushed to become part of a movement she doesn’t necessarily believe in is completely heartless. Pushing her into the movement are the two most prominent people in Maud’s life outside of her family. Firstly, her friend Violet, a great turn by Anne-Marie Duff; a woman who, along with Maud, is the epitome of the working class woman who were woefully under-represented at the beginning of the last century. Second is local pharmacist Edith Ellin, a woman quite literally scorned by her lack of rights not only to a vote, but to an education as well and has become the de facto leader of the East End’s suffragettes who is willing to put everything on the line for what she believes in. Helena Bonham-Carter (an actress who continues to impress me after all these years, so long as she isn’t in Tim Burton films) takes the part of Edith and owns every scene she is in with a presence that most of the cast can only dream to have one day. You feel the pain and anger with her as she leads her charge into unwinnable battles time after time, unrelenting in her convictions and unrepentant in her actions. She’s simply outstanding.
Supporting these great, great actresses is a stellar cast bringing up the rear. Brendan Gleeson’s detective Steed, a copper clearly conflicted and struggling himself between his commitment to the law and his dislike of the way that these women are being treated is a great fit for this brilliant actor. It’s tough enough to keep the sympathies with the women who deserve it, but his flashes of conscience and compassion make you think twice about out-and-out hating him for what he’s doing. Turning the world famous Emmeline Pankhurst into a cameo role was an interesting decision, skipping past the risk of turning it into a full-blown biopic, Meryl Streep’s Pankhurst is spoken of more than she is seen in this film about a movement for which she was the champion; used as motivation for both the law and the suffragettes, Pankhurst’s walk-on part of Suffragette is as powerful a statement about the fight for women’s rights as any made during the film. Much more time is spent on Natalie Press’ Emily Davidson; the suffragette who – if you don’t know who she is, I won’t spoil anything, but safe to say that a history book or two never hurt anyone – brought worldwide attention to the suffragette movement and the time we spend with her in the film portrays her as a desperate woman who’s running short on patience and time and wants the voices of these women to be heard as loud and as far out as possible.
In certain dark and nasty parts of the internet, places that I sadly find myself passing near far too often, the idea of women’s equality is still a dirty thought and as these horrible notions find their way into more mainstream areas of life, Suffragette may be the most important film made this year. Nearly a hundred years since the first positive legal steps were taken towards equal rights for women, there is no better time than now for us all to step back and take the 105-minute journey with East London’s suffragettes and realise that while plenty has changed for the better, far too much has stayed the same.
Some historical inaccuracies aside, Suffragette is a masterpiece. Powerful, poignant and, from here on out, should be required viewing for everyone.