And so begins the 59th BFI London Film Festival. Kicking off the cinematic festivities is an extremely important film, both in terms of its historical subject matter but also in reflective terms of how British society has been shaped since then. Now more than ever is a time when women’s voices are still demanding to be heard. It was only last March that Patricia Arquette famously roused up the likes of Jennifer Lopez and (more fittingly) Meryl Streep at the Academy Awards demanding, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America“.
Whilst we couldn’t agree more with her, her plight goes further than simply the United States. So to commemorate this year’s festival’s theme of strong and inspiring women, the programme is headlining with Suffragette. It’s a film written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring a heck of a lot of women and guess what it’s about? Yep, women! Or more precisely, women’s rights and the arduous journey it took in ensuring that the civil liberty was passed, allowing British women the freedom to vote.
Suffragette is full of the ladies that history remembers such as activist leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) as well as Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and particularly Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). But Abi Morgan’s script graciously pays tribute to the unnamed heroes of the political movement by framing the story through the eyes of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).
Set in 1912 London, Maud has spent her entire life respectfully listening to the commands of men. It’s only after she inadvertently gets caught in the middle of a suffragette vandalism protest in Oxford Circus that she becomes inspired by her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) to join the cause. Mulligan does a sublime job of giving this fictional character all the dimensional qualities of a woman from this time. She brings both vulnerability and strength to a woman finding her voice in what is clearly a man’s world.
At first, she is a nothing more than a doting mother and wife to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and son George. She spends her days on a permanent loop washing the sheets at the same laundry factory that she has worked at since she was a child. Her arms are left visibly disfigured by the scalded scars of her labour and even though she does three times more work than the men, she gets paid a third less than they do – an issue many women today are still trying to rectify.
What director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) has done very well is showing how the spark of revolution was ignited in the everywoman – seriously, Streep’s Pankhurst is in this film for literally four minutes. It’s seeing the metamorphosis of Maud turning from a wallflower, to a foot soldier, to a raging activist that goes to illustrate the frustrations of a society shrouded in inequality. Gavron also manages to capture the overshadowing sense of urgency by using jarring camera shots and editing to make you feel as panicked as possible – particularly the scenes where the police are involved.
Morgan’s script also allows its supporting cast of men to showcase a wide shading of male attitudes towards the movement. Whishaw in particular puts in a tremendous performance as Maud’s husband and Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Arthur Steed depicts a man enforcing the law even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with it.
For all the good Suffragette does in showing the bleak reality of a harsher time, it still needs to be penalised for taking some shortcuts in conveniently tying some of the narrative strands together. Also, it completely fails to address the fact that there is a World War going on at the time which could have been a vital catalyst in justifying the reasoning behind why women were seeking the vote.
Suffragette is a film that evokes a feast of emotions but never is the viewer quite sure which emotion it is they are supposed to be feeling. There’s a lot of different emotional threads woven together but the tone can be hard to pinpoint. Having said that, it’s still a topical film, gifted with a superb cast and led by an awards-worthy performance from Mulligan. A terrific start to this year’s BFI.