Film review: SUFFRAGETTE, from ‘Built For Speed’

It’s staggering to think that, in early 20th century Britain, women were still denied the right to vote. In response to this, a protest movement, known as the Suffragettes, emerged which saw women engaging in activism, protest and even public insurrection as they sought to overturn what they saw as a denial of human rights. Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham-Carter dramatises this struggle and the often vicious battle that ensued as women fought to obtain the right to vote.

While the women’s suffrage movement encompassed the full socio-economic spectrum the film focuses on working class women, in particular laundry worker Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan) a character apparently based on real-life suffragette Hannah Mitchell. At first uninterested in the movement and dismissive of their increasingly radical activities – which includes pelting rocks through shop windows – she becomes involved after seeing the mistreatment of women at the laundry and violent police behaviour at suffragette rallies. Her support for the movement, however, alienates her from her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw), makes her a target for the relentless police investigator Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) and even sees her lost custody of her young son.

While prosaic in style Suffragette succeeds because of it’s important and fascinating subject and it’s strong central performances. Mulligan delivers one of her best performances to date as Maude, transforming from oppressed working mother to committed activist who often endures beatings and brutal stints in prison. Even though it shows her participating in bombings, the film goes to great lengths to make Maude a sympathetic character placing great emphasis on her relationship with her little boy and the anguish she feels when her conservative husband (Ben Wishaw) denies her access to him.

The film is short on polemic and political speeches and instead focuses on the general status of women at the time, particularly low paid working class women and the dangers they face being involved in the protest movement. Disappointingly, though, the film doesn’t connect the issue of women’s voting rights to broader left wing or workers’ movements of the time.

The male characters are to some extent stereotyped as pompous, leering, mutton-chopped bullies with only one male exhibiting any sympathy for the suffragette cause. The film suggests that in the early 1900’s men were fearful that giving women the right to vote would up-end the social order and see women moving into positions of power thought only worthy of men. The way in which the film conveys this is a little clunky with pompous British voices warning of a female invasion of parliament.

In addition to Mulligans fine performance, Helena Bonham Carter is typically magnetic as Edith Ellyn a hybrid of real-life suffragettes Barbara Gould, a pharmacist who used her chemistry skills to construct bombs and Edith Garrud who was one of the first female jiu jitsu instructors in Britain who taught women self-defence techniques. Merely Streep makes a conspicuously brief appearance as movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst and it feels like Streep only had a small window in her schedule to appear in the film.

Director Sarah Gavron does a reasonably convincingly job of recreating the look of the early 1900’s although some of the CGI cityscapes are distractingly artificial and hazy looking.

Suffragette is a solid drama rather than a revolutionary treatment of a remarkable revolutionary event but its subject and central performances make it well worth a look.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Historical drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Sarah Gavron.

Release date: 26th December 2015.

Running time: 106 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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