Film Review: Suffragette (2015)

Director: Sarah Gavron
Running time: 1h 46m
Written by: Abi Morgan
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter

“I would rather be a rebel than a slave”. This line, the rallying cry of the elusive suffragette leader Emmiline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), has been the cause of a storm of controversy in the twitterverse about the ‘tone deaf’ and implicitly ‘racist’ nature of Sarah Gavron’s film, Suffragette. Streep has been criticised for wearing a t-shirt with this quotation in interviews publicising the movie and her cameo role in it. Some feminist groups have picketed showings of the movie for failing to conform to their own narrow agenda, for its lack of diversity, etc, etc.

That’s a shame, because this is a fine movie which gives some insight into how women – especially poor working-class women – were treated just a century ago and why some of them chose to follow a militant path to achieve votes for women. Carey Mulligan gives a fine performance as Maud, a poor working mother who slaves away for long hours in a laundry for a pittance. One evening, delivering a parcel to a customer, she come across a group of suffragettes breaking windows as part of their campaign of direct action to win votes for women. Soon she gets drawn into the movement, rejecting the attempts of Scotland Yard to recruit her as an informer, and ends up in prison where she undergoes the indignity of force-feeding.

The wonderful Helena Bonham Carter never disappoints in her role as the local suffragette leader. She recruits new members, encourages and supports them and provides safe houses to those – like Maud – who are thrown out of their homes by their outraged husbands who find they can no longer control their wives.

Streep’s role is fleeting, but her character dominates the film as the hidden inspiration for these brave women. Brendan Gleason also excels as a Liverpool Irish policeman who had made his name combatting Fenian outrages a few years before. A copper with a conscience, he finds it hard to approve of how his colleagues treat these troublesome women.

I have no idea how historically accurate Gavron’s film is in its details but it’s a cracking story! Today’s women may not always appreciate it but they owe their status today – imperfect as it may be – to women like Maud and Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press), the young women who died under the hooves of the King’s horse at the Derby. Don’t miss this one!

Reviewed by David Kerr

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