REVIEW: Suffragette starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan

23 Sep 2015

Suffragette is about sacrifice. It's about what it takes to truly change injustice and indeed the course of history, regardless of personal cost.

It's an important story, and one which hasn't before been told through film as mad as that seems. I am a feminist; I have been since I was little. I have three brothers, and I never for one second believed that I was any less than equal to them. They were and still are among my favourite people to be around and I value their opinion highly. Although my mum would never describe herself as a feminist (much to my chagrin), she inadvertently brought me up as one, consistently telling me the same thing as she did my brothers - that I could do anything that I wanted if I worked hard enough; no job was outside of my reach; that any man I was with should be my equal, that a good relationship was one of mutual support. Mostly, I have listened.

It is unthinkable to imagine a time where that wasn't the norm, that it was unusual for a mother to tell their daughters the same life rules as her sons. Before 1928, it was a given that women didn't have the same opportunities and nor should they. Women were considered lesser and that was the way of it.

But a group of women did rise up and question it. We know the story of Emmeline Pankhurst, a charismatic, wealthy lady who inspired thousands and relentlessly fought for the women's vote. But what about the women who she galvanised, the ones who didn't have the support and financial backing that she did? The ones who were thrown in prison for protesting, who were viciously beaten up in the street as police officers watched, who were made to feel ashamed for believing in equality. That is the focus of Suffragette.

The film looks at the women's movement from the perspective of a fictional, working class washerwoman called Maud Watts played with great nuance by Carey Mulligan. She leaves her life with a loving husband and young child to join the fight for women's vote. Without giving away too many spoilers, the personal cost is huge - she is humiliated, demeaned and cast aside by her friends and even husband, sensitively played by Ben Whishaw. It's a testament to Whishaw that you can appreciate his struggle, even if it isn't justifiable.

Watts is inspired to become a suffragette through a group of local women, played by Helena Bonham Carter, a gloriously self-possessed, intelligent and uncompromising pharmacist, Anne Marie Duff, a fellow washerwoman, and Natalie Press, who plays Emily Davison - the freedom fighter who was killed by a horse after storming the Derby, in a bid to help the international press recognise the movement. The cause was, up until that point, hidden from the media by the government, who tried to downplay it as best they could.

What is most shocking about Suffragette is seeing the violence and extremity these women were driven to. No one listened to them so they had to make more noise - they smashed windows, they blew up post-boxes, they set houses on fire, they fought policeman, they left lives and the normality they knew to fight for something better.

In turn, they were beaten, went to prison, attempted hunger strikes, were brutally force-fed, abandoned by those who had loved them, some died - but all this was better than the lives they had left behind and the future that they couldn't accept any longer. It's interesting to think of how these women might have been treated today if they'd have challenged injustice in the same understandable extreme way. Perhaps at first they would have been silenced by higher powers, before more extreme measures of control were enforced - maybe police horses would have been unleashed, ASBOs thrown, police violence implemented. It's a worrying thought.

Meryl Streep is brilliant as Emmeline Pankhurst. In an appearance that can't last longer than 10 minutes, she convinces you that you'd have joined the cause too, regardless of what it might have cost, delivering a Churchill-esque speech from a hotel balcony. Frankly, that woman could persuade us to do anything.

Then only criticism of the film is that it occasionally feels simplistic - there are, of course, historical details omitted but this is an adaptation, not an academic history paper. It is unbalanced, with most men painted out as sexist, dim-witted villains, which seems simplistic at best. More could have been made of Streep - not enough was made of her energising, inspiring Pankhurst.

You'll cry. You'll feel angry. You'll feel impassioned. You'll feel indebted. Suffragette is an important story, one everyone should see regardless of gender.

Suffragette opens in cinemas nationwide on 12 October.

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