‘Suffragette’ is a fiery political thriller disguised as a British prestige picture

December 9, 2015


from Indy Week 

Those expecting a proper period piece will be sorely disappointed by Suffragette, a restless and angry drama that sometimes plays out like a violent political thriller. The film is set in London, eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified in the U.S., at the moment when the women’s suffrage movement was turning militant.

Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a desperately poor washerwoman eking out a miserable existence in London circa 1912. Maud is a wage slave in an era when the term is, for all practical purposes, nearly literal. The industrial laundry she’s been laboring at since age 7 is filthy and dangerous. She and the other young women in the laundry must also cope with the sexual predation of their boss.

Delivering a laundry package one evening, Maud stumbles into a guerrilla action by London suffrage activists, throwing rocks through display windows in the city’s posh retail district. It’s the first indication that, for these women, in this time and place, the struggle for freedom is no longer about polite dissent or even peaceful civil disobedience. “We break windows, we burn things,” Maud later says. “Because war is the only language men understand.”

Soon, Maud is recruited into the ranks of the women’s suffrage movement, though “recruit” isn’t really the right term. The elegantly constructed screenplay, by Abi Morgan, depicts Maud’s political radicalization as inevitable. The tipping point has arrived and she is initially swept along in the currents of history. But soon enough she’s awake, aware and swimming hard. The film is based on real events and people. Maud is a composite character, but Meryl Streep shows up as Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant activist who led the British suffrage movement. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, an educated chemist who must work in the back room of her pharmacy while her husband pretends to run the shop.

Director Sarah Gavron makes many bold and interesting choices. Maud’s group must operate as a kind of espionage cell, and several sequences are constructed to move with the verve and velocity of a spy flick, or even breaking news footage. Cinematographer Eduard Grau provides a gritty, ground-level view of London in which the usual prettiness of period drama is discarded entirely. The scenes in the laundry are particularly effective. We see women and children forced to work 16-hour days among vats of toxic chemicals, with no hope, no recourse and no say in their own lives. No vote.

When Maud finally snaps and earns a brief victory over the vicious workhouse boss, it’s a moment of pure cinematic catharsis. I almost stood up and applauded—Suffragette is a movie that can get you worked up. Mulligan’s performance is lovely and layered, and keep an eye out for Anne-Marie Duff as another freedom fighter, Violet, in one of the year’s best supporting roles.

The few weak spots are rather ironic. Ben Whishaw isn’t given much to do as Maud’s husband, an inversion of the usual thankless spouse role that actresses typically have to endure. And the script’s chassis occasionally shows in lines of too-pat dialogue: “You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable!”

If Suffragette ends on an ambiguous note, that’s entirely by design. Like so many of our civil rights struggles, the fight for women’s freedom is far from over—the film ends with some facts and figures on the issue from around the globe. Fierce and fiery, it’s a provocative political drama dressed as a British prestige picture. “Suffragette” was the term British activists used for themselves at the time, but in the U.S., the term was hijacked by opponents of women’s suffrage and considered derogatory. As such, the title has an ironical spin on this side of the Atlantic. Its tone is better conveyed in its original title: The Fury.

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