Never before has the account of the suffragist movement been so brutally and vividly portrayed as in Sarah Gavron’s new film, Suffragette.
Riveting from the outset, the film follows the life of Maud Watts, played by Mulligan, and her transformation from spectator of the movement to keen activist. Witnessing the smashing of a window in Piccadilly whilst delivering a parcel, Watts becomes aware of the radical actions of the women. She later gives her testimony as a laundry worker in front of Lloyd George, attesting to the harsh conditions of factory life. When parliament refuses to endorse the vote and uses violence towards those campaigning, Watts decides the movement is the only way to achieve their aims. She joins a group of suffragettes in the East End, along with pharmacist Edith, played by Bonham-Carter and a friend called Violet. Inspired by the words of Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Streep, she takes part in setting off postal bombs, cutting communication wires, and even blowing up Lloyd George’s country house.
Through joining the movement Watts sacrifices her marriage, motherhood and livelihood. The shame she casts upon her husband after being imprisoned leaves her homeless, and destitute, she seeks refuge in a local church, relying on the kindness of those who share her cause. As such, the film conveys the lengths women went to in order to obtain the vote. Watts’ relationship with her son, who she becomes parted from, reminds the viewer of this. Scenes of them playing are particularly emotive, and for these alone Mulligan’s performance is Oscar worthy.
The film also highlights sexual liberties taken by factory owners against their staff. From subtle comments and touches, we can infer Watts herself is subject to the sexual advancement of her boss. His behavior towards another young girl in the factory provokes Watts’ anger, and in rage she burns his hand with her iron.
There are scenes in the film that are brutal and horrifying. Particularly disturbing is the scene when Watts is force-fed, after going on hunger strike for five days. Held down by prison wardens, a tube is forced down her nose and milk is poured into her stomach. Her cries of pain are terrible and distressing. Hearing her screams, the main detective, played by Gleeson, stops outside her cell and comments the establishment has gone too far. This is a particularly poignant moment of the film.
The acting in the film is of a very high standard, with Mulligan particularly standing out alongside Helena Bonham-Carter. The performance of Gleeson, who pursues the women and brings them to account, is also masterly. Gleeson conveys the detective’s internal conflict skillfully, conveying that although he condemns the women, he also sympathises with them. My only disappointment is that Streep is only in one scene.
As well as the acting, the sets and costumes add greatly to the overall brilliance of the film. The chaotic London streets, busting with pedestrians, cyclists and buses show well the early 20th century city.
Overall the film is effective and profoundly moving. It presents the suffrage movement as it was, with no embellishments or romantic niceties, and conveys the true battle of 20th century women for something we now consider so basic a human right. Suffragette will move you, and there is a high chance it will inspire you to fight against the lack of enfranchisement that still exists in some parts of the world today.
All images sourced from Pinterest.