Suffragette

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UK Release Date 12th October 2015
Director Sarah Gavron
Starring Mulligan, Duff, Bonham Carter
Runtime 106 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 18th October 2015

Females! They’re everywhere these days aren’t they? Seems like one can’t move for feminist issues and women’s rights. Being female myself I am of course pleased about this movement towards making the world a more equal place for half the population. This has impeded somewhat on my cinema going experience though as I am often disappointed by the lack of strong or even significant female characters in films, and the rate at which they fail the Bechdel test. You can imagine my horror when I finally got round to watching Entourage on the plane yesterday.....  

One film that will most definitely not be failing the Bechdel test anytime soon is Sarah Gavron’s triumphant Suffragette, a film starring women, made by women, about women. HURRAH!. There is of course the potential that this film that is SO tapped into the zeitgeist that it could not be any more of the moment; the potential that it could disappoint is looming horribly in the background. Thankfully this film does not disappoint on any level, it is an audacious and essential film taking a long hard look at the brutal side of the female suffrage campaign. 

Carey Mulligan is Maude, a young working class woman in one of the hardest jobs - the laundry. Married to Sonny, a typically narrow minded working class man, with one child upon whom she dotes, George. Maud was born into the laundry and has suffered more than hard work long hours at the hands of her slimy laundry boss; a history of abuse is evident. Maud’s life changes forever when whilst taking a package to Oxford Street she encounters a Suffrage window-smashing incident and recognises Violet (Ann Marie Duff) one of her co-workers from the laundry. Maud is visibly shaken by the event and it is at first in her mind that she will become amongst the women’s ranks but as she begins to talk to Sonny more and his horrifically sexist views we see the cogs in her mind turning as she begins to see there is the possibility of more for her, something else.Something better. 

Maud remains in the outside though, wary and scared of stepping outside the very small box her life has created for her. It’s not until Maud is forced to step in at parliament to give an account of working in the laundry, which is then ignored by Lloyd George that she really crosses over to being a foot soldier for the cause. We watch as her reasons to not participate slowly get pared back until the reasons to participate become overwhelming and impossible to ignore.  

Although much is known throughout history about the Suffragette movement we have never been shown this side that Gavron is showing us, never before has the level of brutality and abuse been shown. This was a war the women were fighting, it was polite, it was dirty and messy, bloody and cruel and Gavron does not shy away form showing us. The scenes of the women being force fed in prison are as upsetting and explicit as they need to be, they make you feel angry and so they should. Women who worked in the laundry typically suffered from horrific sores from the moisture, lung problems and horrendously long hours with no help with childcare. They often died young and more often than not girls worked from a very young and vulnerable age. Gavron doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of this work. Maud is scarred from hot water and her mother died from a VAT tipping on her. Often when we are shown Suffragettes in films they are middle class and maybe a bit like the mother in Mary Poppins. This is exactly what Abi Morgan’s script is now showing us. To create a female protagonist who is working class with much more at stake is a fantastic central premise and it’s why we care so much more about Maud and what happens to her. It feels much more personable and accessible. Maud is one of us, could be one of us – a mother, a friend, a wife, a worker but also a solider. 

Carey Mulligan is just extraordinary as Maud. Understated but with such strength, her face showing a million emotions by doing very little. It is a role that could easily have been overplayed but Mulligan’s Maud will break your heart. As we watch Maud struggle with trying to be a part of something inherently in her heart she knows is right, whilst simultaneously trying to be a mother and watching her family slip away from her will force tears from the even the most hardened viewer. Mulligan's portrayal of Maud is pitch perfect and comendable surely that must put her as a front runner for awards season.  

Mulligan has some wonderful support in the shape of Anne Marie Duff who never puts a foot wrong and is powerful as put upon but tough Violet. Helena Bonham Carter is on superb form as militant chemist Edith, it’s the best we’ve seen her for some time. Ben Wishaw’s takes on what perhaps typically be the 'female' role - the passive man. It’s a tough role to pull off because Sonny says all the wrong things and we hate what he stands for. Wishaw does a commendable and wonderful job as we don’t hate his Sonny, we simply feel sorry for him. Wishaw's Sonny is a misguided man, not an evil one. Brendan Gleeson as the policeman who misguidedly tried to recruit Maud to spy for them is a more than worthy sparring partner for Mulligan and the scenes between them crackle. Natalie Press nails the religious fervour and militancy of Emily Wilding Davison, it’s great role for her. Of course we must mention Queen Streep. It’s clever casting of course because of what 'Meryl' means. Streep is perfect in the role beacuse the kind of woman she is in real life is an a motivating one. As Pankhurst did, Streep inspires and the scenes feel impelling and electrifying. 

Director of photography Edu Grau keeps up the good work demonstrated in A Single Man and The Gift. As a DP his style is instantly recognisable and inimitable and he and Gavron have created something special here. A muted blue/ grey colour pallet where we see reflections in dirty puddles and a grey hued London populated by the poor. The blood of the women as they are beaten by the police and kicked and abused is the brightest colour we see. There is nothing soft or female about Suffragette, it is vicious and jarring and helps remind us that these women suffered horribly so that modern women could help be a part of the law. Maud puts it best when she says ‘if you want me to respect the law, make the law respectable’. Quite.  

Costumes by Jane Petrie are memorable and realistic. The Suffragettes are seemingly polite and perfectly dressed, in the colours of green and violet, with gloves and hats. Maud’s clothes change from the soft, unstructured greys of the laundry to brighter colours, suits - signs of strength. Alice Normington’s gritty and highly effective production design complements the colour pallet perfectly. The laundry in particular is well executed and the poverty of Maud’s East End life is represented well. Alexander Desplat's score has drum and military undertones running through it, aligning itself with the notion that the women were fighting a war, it's a forceful, efficient and  stirring soundtrack, befitting of the film.  

Suffragette is a critical, crucial and necessary film about one of the most important moments in history. As the credits roll we are shown when women around the world got the vote, a reminder that there is still work to be done. It’s meritorious that this film is produced by two strong female producers in Faye Ward and Alison Owen and directed and written by such talented women as Gavron and Morgan; it’s just a shame it’s such a rarity but one can hope that thanks to the sure-fire success of Suffragette, they are paving the way for others. Just like the Suffragettes did before them.  

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