Saturday, November 14, 2015
The best films about political activism put a human face on to a cause, and by that standard the energetic Suffragette is a success. The new film, directed by Sarah Gavron, begins in 1912 when the fight for women’s voting rights in England was changing tactics from civil protest marches to a more aggressive form of disobedience. Laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, with her usual intelligence and deep sensitivity) is caught in the middle of one demonstration, but initially she chooses to forgo the movement in favor of her job and life with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son. What Suffragette - written by Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady) - is very smart about is the way that personal circumstances can determine political choices. For Maud, the way her boss (Geoff Bell) leers at the teenage laundry girls and the fact that Sonny takes their life for granted are fuel for her interest in woman’s suffrage. Morgan’s script doesn’t ignore class differences; the shot of Maud walking in to testify in Parliament is all we need to be reminded just how far she and her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are removed from power.
Maud’s choices begin to have real consequences at home, but she has begun to perceive injustice in the world and is inspired by the commitment of women like Edith Ellyn (an understated Helena Bonham Carter). All of the women view real-life activist Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep in a very brief performance) as their leader, and the most conventional scene in Suffragette is the speech Pankhurst gives to rally her supporters. That speech is interrupted by the police, and the movie keeps cutting away from the women to follow the cop (Brendan Gleeson) who is charged with tracking their activities. It’s questionable how much the film needs this alternate point of view, since the time spent with the police could be used for more scenes of the women’s experiences, but Gleeson - a big man who doesn’t act like one - is the right actor to play a man who’s watching the world around him change. The climax of Suffragette is based on an incident involving Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), an activist who planned to disrupt the Epsom Derby with a pro-suffrage message. The film suggests that Davidson’s actions turned the country around on women’s suffrage, but an epilogue reveals full voting rights were not in fact granted until 1928.
Suffragette is saved from being just another period piece by the strength of its cast and by the direction of Sarah Gavron, who favors hand-held cameras and has an interest in what people reveal behind their eyes. Gavron’s choices gives the film a vitality that speaks to the present day; it’s easy to imagine Occupy protestors in small meetings like these or in confrontation with the police. The women of Suffragette are as human and as scared as anyone would be in their situation. The fact that Suffragette tells that truth is the greatest strength of the film.