Directed by Sarah Gavron
Produced by Alison Owen and Faye Ward
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter,Brendan Gleeson,Anne-Marie Duff,Ben Whishaw and Meryl Streep
Running time 106 minutes
Summary: In early 20th-century Britain, the growing suffragette movement forever changes the life of working wife and mother Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). Galvanized by political activist Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Watts joins a diverse group of women who fight for equality and the right to vote. Faced with increasing police action, Maud and her dedicated suffragettes must play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, risking their jobs, homes, family and lives for a just cause.
The film is centred on the character of Maud (Mulligan) who lives with her husband and son and works in a laundry. The laundry is a terrible place with poor conditions and pay and routine, open, sexual harassment and assault. A co-worker named Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) encourages Maud to come to secret meetings run by Edith and Hugh Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter and Finbar Lynch). Maud gets involved in the struggle. Maud loses a lot, personally, from her involvement with the cause.
Being a suffragette wasn’t genteel. It wasn’t just about writing letters to an MP or attending a meeting.
The suffragettes were angry, organised and militant. Their leadership affirmed and incited this. This film leaves you in no doubt that those fighting for votes for women were prepared to take direct and dramatic action.
The film shows how the suffragettes attacked both government and private property. For example, the attack on 1 March 1912, where about 150 women were given hammers, told exactly which windows to break, when to break them, and how to hit panes low so that glass would not fall from above. At 5.45 p.m. in Oxford Street, Regent Street, the Strand, and other prominent thoroughfares, well-dressed women produced hammers from handbags and began to smash windows. The firms whose windows were
damaged included Burberry’s, Liberty’s, Marshall & Snelgrove, and Kodak. Police arrested 124 women.The damage was estimated at £5,000. The film also follows the women as they plan to attack the property of Lloyd George. At 6 a.m. on 18 February, 1913 the bomb set by Emily Wilding Davison and accomplices wrecked five rooms of his partly-completed house being built near Walton Heath, Surrey.
Suffragette also features perhaps the most famous incident of direct action: the 3 June 1913 disruption of the Derby where she was run down by the King’s horse, Anmer.
Her skull was fractured, and she died five days later without having regained consciousness. Suffragette depicts the huge and impressive funeral of Emily who was considered a martyr by the cause.
Of course the violence was not all one way. The government responded to the suffragettes with repression and brutality. The police had them under surveilance and sought to ‘turn’ some into agents. The scenes of women being beaten by police and force-fed in prison are harrowing. The suffragettes certainly fought back (Dr Forward, the medical officer of Holloway Prison which used force-feeding was assaulted by suffragettes using a dog whip).
Suffragette is an inspiring film showing ordinary women prepared to fight and sacrifice for their rights and those of others. How far their direct action advanced the cause of “Votes for Women” is debatable. Yet their determination and, yes, violence was certainly a strong part of a wider movement that eventually won. Of course it simplifies the complexity of events but, hey, they are telling a long story in 106 minutes!
Suffragette ends with a roll of dates showing when various nations gave women the vote.
Reviewed by Pat Harrington