It is a universally held view, fuelled by stiff photographs and stilted archive footage, that early 20th century women were dour, passive and unable to crack so much as a smile through those stiff upper lips. The perception of suffragettes is generally no different, a group who campaigned for their right to vote through respectful discourse and peaceful protest.
Sarah Gavron’s intricately researched tour-de-force, set during the pivotal year of 1912, immediately shatters that antiquated view. As a group of screaming women throw stones through Oxford Street windows, young laundry worker Maud (Carey Mulligan) is caught up in the melee and her subsequent exposure to impassioned activists like colleague Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), chemist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) and MP’s wife Alice (Romola Garai) sees her embrace the movement at enormous personal sacrifice.
As Maud has the scales ripped from her eyes, so Gavron and master-screenwriter Abi Morgan (Shame, TV’s The Hour) reveal the shocking gender inequality of the day. Routine sexual abuse, unequal pay and a lack of parental rights were just some of the issues facing ordinary women, and the treatment of those who chose to speak out was brutal: public shaming, beating and force-feeding were regularly used by authorities to break protesters into submission.
Despite this unrelenting hardship, the decision to focus on the working class women at the vanguard of this revolution (with Meryl Streep appearing just briefly as movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst) gives the film a visceral dramatic power, particularly as they are all played to perfection by the film’s eclectic cast. Firmly at their centre is Mulligan, superb as the fictional yet fully-fleshed representative of a legion of courageous women. Mulligan bears the majority of the film’s emotional weight, particularly in matters concerning the impact of her political activity on her young family – further expounded by Ben Whishaw’s beautiful, chilling turn as Maud’s increasingly confused husband Sonny – but her natural performance ensures she is no mere vehicle for the issues being discussed. While she may represent a societal awakening, Maud’s personal journey drives the narrative and Mulligan plays her as a spirited, sympathetic and entirely modern woman.
Indeed, what’s striking about Suffragette is that it has so much modern resonance. These women have an ideology shared by today’s feminists, and their story is presented not as a stoic period piece but as a gritty, fast-paced actioner. The use of 360-degree sets and multiple handheld cameras allows cinematographer Eduard Grau (The Gift, A Single Man) to capture the raw energy of protest, while the vibrant production design eschews the perceived primness of the era for a lived-in authenticity.
Everything, from the costumes to the colour palette – sharp black and greys in the male-dominated environs, warm purples and greens when the women are alone – speaks of a world on the cusp of monumental change; one that has remarkable parallels with our own. As such, Suffragette is a piece of living history, a celebration of how far we’ve come but also a stark reminder that, despite the best efforts of these pioneering women, we still have some distance left to go.
This review was originally published at The List