Brian Viner for the Daily Mail
Verdict: Stirring women’s rights drama
Weirdly, film-makers have never seemed especially interested in the stirring story of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain.
Consider how often the fights for racial and homosexual equality have been dramatised in the cinema, and then ask yourself how many big-screen suffragettes you can name, apart from Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins.
Sarah Gavron’s spirited film goes some way towards redressing the balance. Set in 1912 and 1913, it gives us Meryl Streep, no less, as the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst, who urged women to commit ‘civil disobedience’ in pursuit of the elusive right to vote.
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Protest: Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts is led away by police officers in a scene from the stirring Suffragette
The story is told through the fictional working-class character of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, pictured centre)
But the Great Streep makes only a cameo appearance. Wisely, writer Abi Morgan tells the story through the fictional working-class character of Maud Watts (the superb Carey Mulligan), who has much more to lose than the affluent, educated women smashing windows around her, and indeed loses it.
At the start of the film she is poor but ’appy, married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) with whom she has a beloved son, and forewoman at an industrial laundry, where she has worked since the age of seven. But then a co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), introduces her to the suffragette cause, which sends her to Holloway Prison and throws her settled domestic life into turmoil.
‘You want me to respect the law — then make the law respectable,’ says Violet. It’s a lot to ask, because this increasingly radicalised struggle isn’t just about the vote. Maud earns six shillings a week less than her husband, who works shorter hours at the same Bethnal Green laundry. And since childhood she has had to suffer the sexual attention of her boss, who has now turned his predatory eye towards Violet’s 12-year-old daughter.
Meryl Streep as the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst, who urged women to commit ‘civil disobedience’
This man is already a bully, so also to make him what we would now know as a paedophile is perhaps rather over-egging the pudding, if a Victorian kitchen metaphor isn’t inappropriate in the context of women casting off their shackles.
I had hoped that Suffragette would rise above the message that all men are beasts, except the few who aren’t.On the whole it does. One of the more militant campaigners, a pharmacist played by Helena Bonham Carter, has a husband so wedded to the cause that he drives a trio of them to the Surrey home of David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so they can blow it up.
Even Lloyd George himself (Adrian Schiller) seems broadly sympathetic. Whether he turns hostile after finding his house bombed, we never discover.
Maud (Mulligan, left) is introduced to the suffragette cause by co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff, right)
Does the film do enough to distance itself from modern sensibilities, showing that most men who opposed women’s suffrage a century ago were understandably worried by a movement that challenged social norms, and were not being brutishly unreconstructed (a very 21st-century word)? Probably not, but then that’s not the story it needs to tell.
And what it does show is the level of establishment concern, as Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson, also marvellous), a senior policeman with a background in catching troublesome ‘Fenians’, is given the job of suppressing the suffragettes.
As a cocktail of fact and fiction the film works triumphantly, with Maud accompanying Emily Davison (Natalie Press) to the Derby, where by throwing herself under the King’s horse she sacrifices even more than Maud has, becoming the martyr that Steed feared would galvanise yet more women into taking up the struggle.
Which it did. Gavron never sentimentalises this story, but she does end it movingly, with actual, flickering footage of the overwhelmingly female crowd at Davison’s funeral.
This is followed by a list of the years, rolling poignantly up the screen, in which women in various countries were given the vote.
In Britain we didn’t get universal suffrage until 1928. In Saudi Arabia, it’s still just a promise.