This is a film about betrayal – political, national and personal. And, as you’d expect, it’s also about sacrifice; sacrifice of family, of social standing, of safety, sacrifice of body and of life. The story of the Suffragettes may, a hundred years later, seem inevitable but in 1912-13, when women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote for 50 years, it was anything but. A right that nowadays is so fundamentally accepted by both sexes that many choose not to even exercise it is shown in Abi Morgan’s film to be incredibly hard-won.
It is of course London Film Festival time and in the next 10 days hundreds of films will be screened all over London, showing movies from across the world ranging from tiny indie flicks to major Hollywood premieres. This October is a big film month for me, for once pushing the theatre aside; it began with the incomparable Macbeth and will end with the simulcast Spectre on the 26th. In between is the Film Festival, probably my favourite time of year, which this year will include films such as Carol, Truth, Black Mass, High Rise and Steve Jobs.
But first up was Suffragette and you should not let the period setting fool you, this is brutal film that covers a short period in which women who campaigned for the right to vote turned to more militant tactics to get noticed. It was very much a man’s world before the First World War in industrial, political and domestic circles so even getting the media to take Suffragettes seriously and report their activity was difficult. This eye-opening film shows their attempt to increase awareness of their cause through increasingly violent tactics, building up to the famous death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby which, as this film argues, finally made women’s suffrage front page news.
But Morgan adroitly chooses a domestic approach to this story and while the famous figures of Davison and the Pankhurst waft through, it is ordinary working-class women in the East End who are the focus – a decision which both helps the audience to identify the contemporary relevance of this cause and veers away from the ‘great men of history’ approach which often wrongly ascribe significant change to the influence of a single individual. In this case, Emmeline Pankhurst was the inspiration but it was thousands of ordinary women of all classes who coordinated the protests. So we follow Maud, a fictional laundress, who finds herself accidentally drawn into the movement whose initial reluctance and fear of social humiliation amongst her community is contrasted by how much more radical she becomes than some of the original members.
Carey Mulligan gives a complex performance as the struggling Maud, and is particularly affecting when describing the real hardship women of her class experienced, without education and often working from the age of 7, enduring long hours, grinding poverty and unpleasant attention from their bosses. One of the most interesting things Mulligan shows us is just how long Maud has endured her second-class citizen role, clinging only to her happy family life with fellow-laundry worker husband (Ben Whishaw) and child, but that the movement gives her a clarity about her position and hope for something more. It’s incredibly moving at times as she sacrifices her happiness for the cause and there is a particularly heart-breaking moment that will have many audience members judging her decision before asking themselves tricky questions about whether they would do the same thing for such an important cause. But Mulligan shows us that Maud comes to her decisions organically, she’s not defiant from the start but almost surprises herself in becoming so passionately involved.
Maud is drawn to the cause by Violet played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff, who agitates in the laundry and remains unaffected by the derision of the other workers. We’re only given hints about Violet’s domestic life – an alcoholic husband, numerous children and continual moves – but Duff instils her with a believable sense of a woman who made her choice long ago but human enough to understand the costs for everyone. Duff and Mulligan are supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a local pharmacist (with a sympathetic husband) who coordinates the local campaigns at increasing cost to her own health. Bonham Carter here gives one of her best performances in years, played absolutely straight, and represents another kind of sacrifice women made to secure the vote. Romola Garai turns up far more briefly than the promotional material suggests as a wealthy politician’s wife, whose role seems only to be patronised by her husband to show that other classes of women wanted the vote too – in fact she only has slightly more screen time than Meryl Streep as Pankhurst in a ‘blink- and-you’ll-miss-her’ 30 seconds of screen time, she’ll probably win an Oscar for it though!
It’s not all about the women and we see three different sets of men. First Ben Whishaw has a decent stab as Maud’s disapproving husband, and is probably the only man in the film who you see is also filling a socially determined gendered role, expected to control his wife, support the family and make the decisions. There’s also the one-note bulling factory boss with an eye for young girls that emphasises the horrific lot of working women at this time, and finally there’s a coming together of politicians and some kinds of secret service / police group that gives interesting texture about how the Establishment tracked and attempted to undermine the Suffragettes, but tells us little about the expectations on powerful men in this period. Brendan Gleeson and Sam West appear in the latter group and both are excellent, but West in particular is criminally underused.
As you leave the cinema, the thing you remember most is the violence that these women endured. Early on after finding the Government has betrayed them, a Suffragette protest is broken up by the savage beating of women by policeman which is hard to watch. This leads to some equalling gruelling prison scenes that show further assaults on the dignity of the female prisoners and in a galling scene the force-feeding of a hunger-striker through the nose. This of course all leads up to the finale at the Derby where director Sarah Gavron builds the tension with bustling crowd scenes full of confusion before the fatal moment when a shocked silence descends as the newspaper cameras finally notice the Suffragettes. And this nicely dissolves from our cast going off to the funeral to the real footage of Suffragettes honouring their cause behind the hearse.
So is this a good film or is it an important one? Of course as the first ever film about Suffragettes its importance is assured and with very little competition unless you count one of Alec Guinness’s many brief turns in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But it also stands as an interesting and carefully crafted film, full of multi-layered characters who just happen to be telling true stories. Refreshingly, there’s no sense of inevitability about it and although we know now how it eventually turned out, the precariousness of it comes through so well in this film. And as the final notes reveal it still took a World War to give women over 30 the vote and another 10 years before everyone got the right. I said at the beginning that Suffragette is a film about betrayal and sacrifice, and so it carefully weaves together a national political cause with the domestic treacheries and losses endured by the women involved. Suffragette stands then not just as symbol of a 100 year old movement but brings a very human tale of bravery and faith to remind us that sometimes a higher cause is worth fighting for.
Suffragette was shown at the BFI London Film Festival and the programme is