D: Sarah Gavron. DP: Eduard Grau. W: Abi Morgan. Starring: Carey Mulligan/Helena Bonham-Carter/Anne-Marie Duff/Meryl Streep/Ben Wishaw/Brendan Gleeson/Romola Garai/Natalie Press/Adam Michael Dodd.
As award season looms the first of many strong contenders hits theaters. Suffragette bowed at the London Film Festival and enticed domestic violence protesters to lay down on the red carpet and call for greater funding. The cast donning shirts with ‘I’d rather be a rebel, than a slave’ caused outrage back in the US. But here in the UK, as the quote is part of Emmeline Pankhurst famous speech to the British suffragettes, the promotion went unfazed. Perhaps context these days is even more important than ever.
Suffragette follows Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) whose dingy East London life in a launderette has little solace but parenting her young son George. Maud is so down she doesn’t even get an ‘e’ in her name, deprived from her very birth. As her fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) recruits her to join the movement Maud’s home and work lives are threatened as she takes on the cause of women’s right to vote and equal pay. She eventually joins action master Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter) who takes Pankhurst’s (played in one sequence by Meryl Streep) call to rebellion seriously.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan, who wrote the fabulous BBC series, The Hour, along with The Iron Lady and Shame, keeps a tight pace in her work. The film clips along not leaving time to over sentimentalize too much. Domestic violence and work injuries are part of the landscape here, Maud’s upper arms covered with burns never explained or referenced to. This subtle hand from director Sarah Gavron helps Mulligan carry the film with tenderness and restraint. Mulligan’s Maud is fragile, but her clear eyes let the practicality of her world shine through. A nice turn especially when help up to last years Far From the Madding Crowd.
Mulligan is surrounded by the best with Streep swooping in much like Judi Dench did in Shakespeare in Love. Bonham-Carter provides the group determination that helps balance a nice performance by Duff as beaten and baby tired Violet. Natalie Press is no newcomer, but her part here is pivotal. You should see Andrea Arnold’s Oscar winning short Wasp to see what she’s capable of. The men are few here, but Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson provide a cadence of reactions needed against Maud’s cause.
Suffragette is in the middle of a current heated debate about the white washing of feminism in cinema. The lack of any non-white representation in the film is clearly apparent, but yet can every film represent everything or everyone? I am not defending the film’s choices, but nevertheless Suffragette ultimately takes on Maud’s story as someone so close to Emily Wilding Davidson. Surely there were class and racial distinctions within the suffragette movement, but what is to be celebrated is the message. In this scenario I do not think there is a right choice that would appease everyone. Nonetheless the discussion is a fruitful one, no one was talking about this ten years ago. Let’s hope the film’s success is a call to arms.