A working wife and mother's life is forever changed when she joins the UK's growing suffragette movement. She becomes an activist for the cause alongside women from all walks of life. When increasingly aggressive police action forces Maud and her dedicated fellow suffragettes underground, they engage in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, who are shocked as the women's civil disobedience escalates and sparks debate across the nation.

3.5
Rousing and convincing, despite its flaws

It feels like women have started shouting again. Women in Hollywood, women in Australian film, women in workplaces of all kinds who want equal opportunities and equal pay are shouting that the statistics are dismal and we’ve got so far to go. It’s impossible not to read Suffragette through the lens of this current protest, and why not? What we find is a steely, sombre film, completely lacking in hysteria (a word so often used to denigrate female emotion) but no less angry or affecting for that.

Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and writer Abi Morgan (Shame) tell a fact-based story set in 1912 and 1913, crucial years in the British fight for women’s voting rights. The heart of the film is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) a young working class wife and mother living humbly with her wiry husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their fragile little boy, George (Adam Michael Dodd). Childcare is always a problem and Maud’s arms and chest are scarred and scalded from working in the steamy London laundry. After witnessing a women’s protest in which store windows are smashed, Maud starts to see injustice all around her, from the sexual harassment of young girls by her evil boss, to the fact that women are paid far less for working just as hard as the men. Encouraged by her workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), Maud attends meetings and meets fellow foot-soldiers in the fight for women’s right to vote. These include a kindly and liberated pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter), a wealthy aristocrat (Romola Garai) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), the activist who would famously throw herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

With a peaky unmade-up face and a natural air of sweet melancholy, Mulligan is an engaging everywoman. Her emerging political consciousness plays out believably alongside her escalating tragedies as she loses first, her marriage, her job, her home and then her child to the cause. The tearful scenes in which she bids her son goodbye are just as traumatic as the increasingly violent punishments we see rained down upon the women as the establishment fights back. Brendan Gleeson plays a police inspector tasked with breaking up and imprisoning the protestors. He’s largely unsympathetic, but even he is shocked when the hunger-striking prisoners have tubes brutally forced down their throats.

Special mention should go to cinematographer Eduard Grau (A Single Man) who insisted on shooting on 16mm film, giving a grainy, grimy realism and capturing bleak period detail. The scenes of street violence where police kick and bash the women are shot with such breathtaking immediacy they leave you feeling punched in the guts.

‘We break windows and we burn things, because war is the only thing men listen to,’ says Maud when she’s interrogated by the police. Suffragette may have some weak moments.  One wishes Meryl Streep hadn’t been dragged out to give a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, and there are doubtless many groups of women not represented in this small, British story, but the film remains a rousing and convincing depiction of the kinds of sacrifices made to enact social change. An effective afterword lists the relatively recent dates when different countries gave women the full right to vote, with a final, sobering note: that Saudi Arabia is still talking about it.

Suffragette

7:30PM, Friday 6 December on SBS (at SBS On Demand following broadcast)

M
UK, 2015
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw
What's it about?
A working wife and mother's (Mulligan) life is forever changed when she joins the UK's growing suffragette movement. She becomes an activist for the cause alongside women from all walks of life. When increasingly aggressive police action forces Maud and her dedicated fellow suffragettes underground, they engage in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, who are shocked as the women's civil disobedience escalates and sparks debate across the nation.

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Details

PG-13
1 hour 46 min
In Cinemas 25 December 2015,

Genres