‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’; This historical quotation proved controversial; yet no words ring truer for Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. Set in 1912, the film follows the fictional, working-class woman Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), we see her evolve from meek, vulnerable laundry lackey to a dedicated and determined suffragette. Gavron’s direction is supreme; she captures the real sense of the hopelessness of working-class London life, with dimly lit cinematography expertly depicting the stifling and grey-tinged pre-war London. Life for the female protagonist seems equally as suppressed. Whilst Maud obviously adores her husband (Ben Whishaw) and son, the audience can never ignore her obvious feelings of discontentment.
And how could she not be discontent? Working in the laundry for little appreciation but high risk of illness, she continues to trudge along; sustaining harassment from her abhorrently slimy boss (brilliantly played by Geoff Bell) and working for far less than her husband, despite doing much harder work. Having never once questioned ‘doing what she is told’, she finds herself intrigued by the actions of the Suffragette movement- but far too scared of repercussions to remain anything but a spectator. She is merely an undervalued and underpaid wife and mother; voiceless and passive. That is until she almost by too-neat a fate, finds herself forced to testify about her work conditions in front of parliament.
Having only attended in support of her friend co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), she finds herself stepping in for her badly beaten co-worker. She testifies about her poor work and life conditions, seemingly receiving sympathy and promise. When those ‘promises’ are thwarted, Maud finds herself thrust into the epicenter of the suffragette struggle; losing her job and family in the process, but finding female solidarity with her fellow rebels.
“The unpolished cinematography is spectacular, with the audience often feeling swept up in the commotion itself”
Her allies come in the form of unofficial pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet and the unfortunately underused but superb Emily Davidson (Natalie Press). Together they rally, organise protests and eventually escalate into the anarchistic activities encouraged by Emmeline Pankhurst’s (Meryl Streep) ‘Deeds not words’ speech. Perused vigorously by the police, their suffragette story is portrayed with dynamic and chaotic vigor.
The riot scenes are brutal to watch. The unpolished cinematography is spectacular, with the audience often feeling swept up in the commotion itself. The violent and thuggish police brutality is almost unbearable to witness, as the women are forcefully thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten. One harrowing scene involves women being brutally force-fed, which, though harrowing to watch, reminds us of the sheer torture these women went through. Whilst these are brutal enough, the most heart-wrenching scenes come through Abi Morgan’s fictional Watts family. Torn apart by Maud’s activism; we see the desperate and desolate Maud losing both her husband and her son when Sonny angrily kicks her out. However, what makes it all the more sorrowful than Maud’s blatant depicted turmoil, is how the audience never quite hates Sonny Watts. He too is a pitiful character; too determined to prove his masculinity than protect his family. His weakness makes Maud’s suffering seem ever the more unjust. At least Maud has a cause to compensate for her loss, Sonny seems perpetually passive and forgettable.
Suffragette is a must-see film of 2015. It highlights perfectly and expertly the struggles of female equality but does so in such a chaotic way that it reminds us we’re not done yet. It is enlightening, brutal and poignant. As it pans to the closing titles, we are met with a list of countries and their women’s vote statistics. Each statistic is a blow to the head, a punch in the gut and urges in us a reminder to continue in the vein of the suffragettes.