The typical perception of the suffragette movement is one of peaceful geniality. Emily Wilding Davidson’s gruesome death under the hooves of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby aside, women’s fight for the right to vote is thought of mostly as posh women politely protesting in big hats and rather fetching sashes.
Sarah Garvan and Abi Morgan’s Suffragette, though, flies in the face of that misperception. Painting a brutally honest picture of this epoch-making era, this taut, engaging drama is unsettling and often outright sickening to watch, which is precisely what makes it so powerfully moving.
Set in the early 20th century, the film takes place during the period when, after decades of having their peaceful pleas for the chance to be heard ignored by “those dinosaurs in parliament”, the feminist movement decided words were no long enough; action was required.
What’s striking about the story is the lengths these women were prepared to go to possess a right many of us now take for granted. Activists committed desperate acts of vandalism, throwing bricks through shop windows, cutting telephone wires and bombing post-boxes and MPs’ homes to make their presence felt.
Such violence becomes entirely understandable, if not acceptable, when we witness the brutality these women suffered at the hands of those in power. Suffragettes were often ostracised, losing their jobs, their homes and even their families in the fight, whilst police viciously beat anyone who dared protest.
Garvan’s direction of these moments is superb. Her beginnings as a documentary filmmaker show here in her knack for finding the heart of the drama, shooting almost everything in intense close-ups, exposing the true horrors the women had to endure by refusing to look away as they are attacked and forced-fed in prison.
The Brick Lane director also demonstrates a Hitchockian-esque verve for building suspense, utilising shaky camerawork and low angle shots to depict the violence to uncomfortable effect. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score almost resembles a horror film at times, slowly raising the pulse to foreshadow the terrible events to come.
Rather than focusing on famous Suffragettes, like Davidson and Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in a surprisingly brief cameo), Suffragette focuses on Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts, a fictional working-class woman who initially has no interest in the feminist movement.
It’s only when she is sent out on a delivery and accidently stumbles into a violent protest that Maud becomes intrigued by the work of the WSPU, gradually finding herself enticed by the offer of a chance to build a life better than toiling in a dank laundry room for next to no pay.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan’s decision to centre the drama on an ordinary woman is a masterstroke, allowing her story to move beyond heavy historical fact to probe deeper into what being part of such an iconic movement truly meant for the people involved.
The performances are almost entirely flawless. While Geoff Bell is stuck with a perfunctory role as Maud’s cruel employer, Morgan is careful to paint her prominent male characters in a more sympathetic light, with Brendan Gleeson and Ben Wishaw both offering vivid portraits of honourable men striving to fulfil their duties, even if they are understanding of the women’s plight.
Helena Bonham Carter, whose great grandfather, H. H. Asquith, was, coincidentally, British Prime Minster during the Suffragette period, is also worthy of praise for her commanding portrayal of Edith Elyn, a prominent WSPU foot soldier who put her health and career on the line to fight for the vote.
It’s Mulligan who is the undisputed standout, though, giving a full-blooded performance as an ordinary woman pulled into the fight when she can no longer ignore the abuse and unfairness that is all around her. Mulligan excels during the scenes of personal loss as Maud is forced from her home, her job and, most tragically, her young son, wringing every ounce of wrenching pain out of these moments that make her character question whether it’s all really worth it.
The dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly uneasy state grows ever more volatile until the film reaches its inevitable conclusion. With the suffragettes losing patience with being unheard, they choose to bypass politicians and the media altogether, converging on Epsom to make one last horrific stand in full view of the king himself.
This harrowing climax is shot exquisitely once again by Garvan, with all sound eliminated save for the bur of a rolling camera capturing the tragedy as suffragettes and police alike stand lost in despair.
It’s a stark reminder that, much like with the two world wars that would soon engulf the nation, there is very little glory in this fight for justice, only the shameful sadness that is should ever have been allowed to go so far.
Runtime: 106 mins; Genre: Historical Drama; Released: 12 October 2015;
Director: Sarah Garvan; Screenwriter: Abi Morgan;
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonhman Carter, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleason
Click here to watch the trailer for Suffragette