Movie review: Suffragette

Tragically, the most moving scene in Sarah Gavron’s anticipated period drama on the movement for women’s right to vote is its ending. Just when you expected the credits to roll, leaving you stunned at the ambiguous and haphazardly tied-up finale, actual newsreel footage of the funeral procession of suffragette martyr, Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press), takes over the screen.

Brimming with rage, drive and sorrow, the brief black and white footage, which pays homage to a woman who sacrificially gets trampled to death by a horse in public view while trying to advance their agenda, blatantly displays what the movie doesn’t – honesty. Following this grisly scene is a crawling timeline of the movement worldwide, concluding with Saudi Arabia’s 2015 promise to let certain women vote; 100 long years after the movie’s setting. Both the footage and the timeline jolt the audience awake with a grim reminder that gender equality is an ongoing battle.

For a political film expected to provide context to the long-standing fight for equality between the sexes, Suffragette has taken its title so seriously it focuses on 1 woman’s transition from interested bystander to active militant. There’s enough there to interest us, of course, but it comes at the expense of drawing attention to the bigger issue – the fight for women’s right to vote and stand for office in early 20th century London.

The film, written by BAFTA-nominee and Emmy-winner Abi Morgan of Shame (also starring Carey Mulligan) and The Iron Lady (starring Meryl Streep) stars these 2 very accomplished actresses, with a twist. The spotlight is on Mulligan’s fictional character of toiling wife/mother-turned-political-activist, Maud, instead of 3-time Oscar winner Streep’s turn as the real head of the movement Emmeline Pankhurst.

Maud has worked as a laundress almost her whole life in a place where sexual liberties were liberally taken and where she worked backbreaking hours for poor pay.

Mustering a silent rage against her brutish boss (Geoff Bell) and her reedy husband (Ben Whishaw), Maud meets chirpy mother of 4, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), who invites her to secret suffragette meetings allowing her to meet the physically deteriorating but emotionally infallible pharmacist, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter). Eventually, she joins them and breaks free from the societal chains she’d been shackled in simply by being a woman. But this only happens after a series of prison stints and gentle coercion by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) to be a double agent. Yes, there’s a lot going on in this movie.

But the bulk of the film ensures that these women’s, especially Maud’s, stories were woven into the movement. Although painfully personal and raw (like Maud being forced by her husband to part with her only child, George, for being a suffragette), is this necessary? After all, the movement isn’t about 1 woman and her struggles, but about the fight for women.

This is where Suffragette went wrong. Much like Roland Emmerich’s heavily criticized Stonewall, which centered on a fictional Caucasian gay man in a fight for gay rights that was actually ignited by black and Latina transgendered protesters, this feminist film only delves deeply into Maud’s story.

The filmmakers seemed to think that we would be much more interested in what was happening on the sidelines, instead of the main story. The story shouldn’t have been about how Maud was alienated by her small community of neighbors after her association with the suffragettes is discovered, nor about her rocky marriage and the loss of custody of her son, George. The story should have rightfully been about the suffragettes as a community, like how Ava DuVernay’s Selma was about the African-American fight for civil rights in 1960s America. This way, the powerful story of a community’s fight wouldn’t have been reduced to a sole woman’s struggles. Despite the film being shot like a breaking news coverage, with tight, shaky, eye-level shots, we don’t care about Maud or Edith or Violet. At least not as much as we cared about what’s happening around them: the hundreds of other women in the crowd lighting torches, waving ‘Vote For Women’ flags and banners and willing to sacrifice everything for what we now have as basic rights. We care about the movement and the white, hot passion that comes with it.

The Maud character, despite lacking the complexity and depth expected of a protagonist, is beefed up by Mulligan’s exquisite portrayal. Her quiet fire is beautifully juxtaposed with Bonham Carter, Press and Duff’s roaring flames. Their performances surprisingly even outshone Streep’s. Granted, she was on screen for 5 minutes at best, but her “We will win” speech possessed the uppity air of every entitled activist despite being cut short by more violence by the local authorities. Sorry, Streep, at least you got top billing.

The fight for equality between the sexes is an important issue that continues to be relevant. Evidently, the fight isn’t over, and Suffragette is a timely reminder that we’ve come so far because of the amazing sacrifices of some, and we cannot give up. For this, Suffragette gets our vote.


Rating: ★★★☆☆



Release Date: 31 December 2015

Runtime: 106 minutes

Language: English

Rating: PG-13

Genre: Drama

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Meryl Streep, Natalie Press