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Suffragette is a serviceable look into the history of feminism by way of the early twentieth century struggle for the right to vote by the women who began to resort to violence to make their voice heard. Knowing nothing about that history, I have no opinion on how well Suffragettes—written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron—sticks to the truth and where it departs from it, but I’m not sure it really matters much for the common viewer. We all know that women now have the vote, and that is not likely to change again, so all that matters is this story and how it reflects values and concerns that it is reasonable to suppose were those faced by these brave, oppressed women. For those interested, the reader can find the stories here of some of the real life suffragettes upon whose lives the mostly fictional characters of the film are based. This film will serve as a superb discussion starter for issues of politics, violence, rights, oppression and all the concepts so important in our society for discussing race, gender and religious tolerance.

Carey Mulligan, one of Britain’s finest young film stars, plays the central character of the film, Maud Watts, a laundry worker, who is radicalized to the cause by the encouragement of a fellow worker Violet Miller, played by Anne-Marie Duff. Both are bolstered and directed by the educated, though also working class, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). These three carry the burden of the acting, though Maud’s life is the one thoroughly explored, and the tensions are brought mostly strongly to the surface through her marriage and motherhood and their pull on her away from involvement in the dangerous politics of protest. Mulligan gives her typical thoroughly committed performance, perhaps because she may have been pregnant during the filming of the movie (she gave birth to her first child in September of this year). She is perfect as the mousy, submissive worker at the beginning of the movie, who is clever enough to subvert the plans of the lecherous owner of the laundry (a huge, dangerous place in early twentieth century in Britain), but she is just as good as the loving mother who must face impossible choices as she becomes more and more deeply embroiled in the illegal work of the movement.

Duff and Carter are also very good, though they have much smaller roles, and one of the greatest faults of the film is that the woman around whom the most important plot point turns is almost non-existent until that point in the story.

A major contributor to the film’s being able to get over some of its deficiencies in the story is the remarkable costuming, hair and set design. Beautifully shot by Eduard Grau (A Single Man, The Gift), whether the scene is in the rain or the smog-filled daylight of turn of the century London, the feeling is absolutely impeccable that we are in the grime and dirt of a London caught in the ill effects, both physical and social, of the industrial revolution. Kudos to the producers and the special artists responsible for the look of this film.

As an aside, Meryl Streep is prominent on the advertising for the film, but has less screen time than Judi Dench did in Shakespeare in Love. Of course in the mysteries of the Academy, Dench won the Oscar for that performance…

Drew Trotter

November 23, 2015

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