Sarah Gavron's look back at the fight for the right to vote for women owes a great deal to the performance of Carey Mulligan
Director Sarah Gavron turns her eye from heightened racial tensions of the early 2000s (Brick Lane) to the fight for women's rights in the early 1900s in this compelling, semi-dramatised retelling of some key moments in the suffragette movement’s timeline.
Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a fictional amalgamation of the everyday suffragette foot-soldier brought in from the cold to stand up for her sex. Initially a disenfranchised laundry worker, turning a blind eye to the abusive behaviour of her gaffer and the clunking, heavy machinery and poisonous conditions she and her fellow women subsist in, she witnesses a number of uprisings: amid cries of “Votes for women!” windows are smashed and stones are hurled in protest at the lower pay, the lack of rights and boxing-in that women suffer at the hands of their men.
As she inevitably finds herself encouraged into joining up, almost by accident, with the movement - in the film, heavily focused on the activities of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) - Watts moves from impassive bystander to full-on freedom fighter. As an amalgamation of the typical suffragette, she undergoes a number of struggles all too familiar to rights-desiring women at the time: her passive husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) tells her to stop with what he perceives as nonsense, her son is taken away, and she finds herself under constant surveillance from the constabulary, led by Detective Steed (Brendan Gleeson).
She’s arrested time and time again, hunger strikes, is force fed in response, but Watts, together with a number of prolific historical figures (Helena Bonham-Carter as Edith Ellyn, and Natalie Press as the now infamous Emily Davison), encapsulates all angles of the struggles women went through in order to win the vote with “deeds, not words”, designed to capture as much attention from the public as possible after Government meddling prevents the passage of a crucial bill.
However, the film belongs to Watts rather than to any of her real-life compatriots - not least Meryl Streep’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as WPSU figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst - and as such it’s the story of her transition (therefore, as a composite character, also that of many suffragettes) from ignorance to involvement.
Mulligan’s performance, from her accent to her body language, exquisitely captures her character’s suffering. Watts’ indecisiveness is expertly managed; with each arrest, her face softens a little, but her eyes steel up towards the end of the 100 minute runtime, despite the men around her telling her she is, in the words of Steed, “fighting a battle she cannot win”.
But you know the story, and the credits take a moment to remind you that it's a story that continues to roll on elsewhere in the world. And while Suffragette does little to challenge the viewer whilst weaving its inspiring tale of rags-to-rights, it does, once in a while, surprise with its details. The most uncomfortable moments of the film aren’t when policeman hit out with their batons at women fighting for a most basic right, or when Watts finds herself being force fed, with a tube inserted into her nose and milk poured down her throat; rather, it’s when she walks down a smoky, grainy London street, a medal denoting her alignment to the cause pinned to her lapel, and the women around her sneer in disgust, or fail to meet her gaze.