LFF review: Suffragette Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Wednesday, 07 October 2015 13:05

Director: Sarah Gavron
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw
Certificate: 12A

Say the phrase "women's rights" to people today and they may well roll their eyes or nod their head in understanding. Gender equality is a subject that has finally started to take centre stage, over 100 years since the suffrage movement began. For some, though, it remains a theoretical issue. Numbers are thrown around regularly. Salaries for men and women. The percentage of female directors in Hollywood. Suffragette takes the issue off the page and gives it a beating heart.

It's hard to believe that there hasn't been a major film about the movement before now - itself an indicator of how endemic sexism still is in 2015. That topicality, though, isn't just confined to off-screen: in director Sarah Gavron's hands, the film manages to feel less like a documentary about the past and more a story relevant to the present.

Our eyes onto events belong to Maud (Mulligan), a laundry worker with a well-meaning husband (Whishaw) and a well-behaved boy. All that is thrown off kilter, though, when she joins the movement through her colleague, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). But Abi Morgan's script is less a tale of radical recruitment (with an excellent Helena Bonham-Carter as eagerly militant pharmacist's wife Edith Ellyn) than a document of social necessity: Maud isn't pulled into the protests; she's shoved in by the violent cops beating crowds, by her poor wages and by her abusive boss.

The cast are uniformly excellent, from Meryl Streep's rallying cry ("I'd rather be a rebel than a slave!") to Mulligan's heavily-cockney everywoman. In the lead, Carey's facial expressions are as fluid as ever, able to seem both innocently naive and world-weary. The men are equally well treated, as Whishaw's hubby finds himself unable to endorse her full rebellion and Brendan Gleeson's conflicted cop remains determined to carry out the law, regardless of his opinion. "They promised nothing, they gave nothing," he shrugs, as the women march on Parliament on the understanding that testimonies from working class women might be heard by the government.

Mulligan's delivery of her life story is enough to move a room full of men, but it's halfway through that Suffragette really hits its message home - when Maud says goodbye to her son, realising that the law says that he belongs to his dad, not her. The concept of disenfranchisement can be hard to convey with much passion, but Gavron and Morgan's achievement is to give that abstract notion a tangible, emotional clout. For Maud, her personal and political battle are one and the same; if the subject of legal rights doesn't bring you to tears, the sight of someone's child being torn from them will.

The only blemish is the absence of black women from the ensemble - a potential whitewashing of history that is evidently unintentional but nonetheless suggests that there were no black women in London in the early 1900s. If Suffragette fails to be equal in all departments, though, it certainly succeeds at paying tribute to those who gave up their family, their jobs and their lives for a cause that continues today. Inspirational and hugely moving, this is a historical drama that feels urgently present.