Director: Sarah Gavron
Major Players: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep
Out Of Five: Four
The aging hippies among us will remember a track from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Teach Your Children. It may have been made in 1970, but it’s still remarkably relevant, especially when it comes to Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, which opened the London Film Festival today. It’s also released nationwide on Monday, 12th October.
It’s set just over a century ago, in 1912, when my grannie would have been a teenager. That makes it personal – it’s not the only time – but the way of life and the attitudes on display seem way, way older. At the start of the film, women had already been campaigning peacefully for the vote for some 50 years and nobody was taking any notice. So the Women’s Social and Political Union, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), upped the campaign to include smashing shop windows, placing bombs in post boxes and, ultimately, the most famous and tragic act in the movement’s history.
But this is no Pankhurst bio-pic. Suffragette tells its story through Maud (Carey Mulligan), a traditional wife and mother who works hard at home and even harder at the local laundry. There are others, of course: her feisty co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) and pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), whose husband is so supportive he’s also been to prison for supporting the cause. But this is Maud’s story – how she’s unintentionally caught up in events and how what she sees and experiences at first hand changes her irrevocably. And because she’s an ordinary, working woman, she’s somebody the audience can immediately identify with.
Mulligan is the perfect choice for the role and delivers an excellent performance: the way her character unfolds in front of our eyes is masterly and, although she represents so many other women, she’s also a well-rounded character in her own right. She’s well supported by the spirited Anne-Marie Duff and an unusually low-key Helena Bonham Carter, proving she can do more than play eccentric roles. Don’t, however, expect all the men to be portrayed as out-and-out villains. Gavron has been even-handed in her approach and they are, in the main, sympathetic. Even Brendan Gleeson’s police chief, the last person you’d expect, has misgivings about the way the campaigners are being treated.
Not that we’re spared the brutal treatment meted out at the time, even if we don’t see it all. Maud’s force feeding is distressing to say the least: we witness some of it but even more disturbing are her screams echoing down the prison corridor. There is a much clearer view of the way the police deal with the demonstrating women – vicious punches and kicks, which are wince-making
The film is just as much about today as it is about 1912. Its intention is to show how far female equality has come and how much further it has to go. So, in front of the credits, there’s a roll call of the major countries around the world, showing when they gave women the vote. Many are more recent than you might expect. And, as Meryl Streep pointed out at the film’s press conference, there are still two places in the world where women don’t have the vote. Saudi Arabia, which is moving towards it, is one. The other is The Vatican. Over to you, Your Holiness ……..
Powerful, emotional and well structured, Suffragette is about real working women, not ladies who lunch. It leaves you with a feeling that there are more stories about the movement to be told – not just Pankhurst’s – but, with so many of them not having been documented at the time, the final tally could well be smaller than it should be. What’s really surprising about this story is that it’s taken so long for it to be turned into a film. But the fact that it has, and that it’s been written and directed by women as well, makes it both worth the wait and worth everybody’s time.
Suffragette opened the London Film Festival today and is screened again on Thursday, 8th October, before going on general release on Monday, 12th October. It’s also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 8th October.