I was lucky to have had an opportunity to see a motion picture that won’t be on general release until October this past Friday night. Given how far away it is from hitting the cinemas, I will be extra careful in terms of not offering spoilers up for “Suffragette”, starring Carey Mulligan, directed by Sarah Gavron, a film that tells the story of the struggle for women to gain the vote in Great Britain as seen through the prism of events leading up to the death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913.
First of all, the subject matter of the movie would have presented a huge challenge to the film makers. In many ways, it would be similar to setting out to make a film about anti-aparthied campaigners in South Africa in the 1980s. How do you present those fighting for a cause that at the time was controversial but is universally accepted as right in this day and age, without seeming cloying, predictable, sentimental or perfunctory? It’s a lot harder than you would imagine. “Suffragette” handles this expertly. Mulligan plays a character named Maud Watts; it was good that Davison wasn’t the main character for reasons that would contain spoilers to discuss, but trust me, it helps the film. Meryl Streep’s Pankhurst is only seen briefly, adding to the mystique of the character. The scenes involving Mulligan’s character and her son are all heartbreaking – again, something that is more difficult to get right than you might think.
“Suffragette” never seems like a hagiography of the movement, which is probably its best feature because it allows the film to be a genuine drama. It doesn’t skim over the idea that the movement employed tactics that were by definition terrorism (although purposely avoiding human harm it should be noted), or that given what had to be sacrificed by many of the suffragettes, a certain amount of fanaticism – something readily demonised, often with good reason in today’s world – became involved. The Ben Wishaw husband character isn’t a one dimensional brute, but a reasonably complex character, particularly given what the plot requires him to do. It presents a 1912/13 world that seems utterly real – again, something many an historical drama fails to achieve.
The tension of the final twenty minutes of the movie is almost unbearable – again, deserving of the highest praise. It should be mentioned here that it takes a definitive line on the Emily Davison incident that will anger some – I can only say that as drama, every frame worked.
It was also a welcome reminder of how far we’ve come as a a society in terms of treating everyone as equal, regardless of gender – and how far we still have to go. At the end, a caption tells us that in 1925 women gained rights of guardianship over their own children – probably as important in terms of women’s rights as gaining the vote in 1918. Given the death of Emily Davison happened just over a century ago, it is amazing to think of how relatively nascent the consensus that women should have one of the most basic rights as a citizen at all actually is.
So in summary “Suffragette” doesn’t disappoint. There is Oscar talk around the picture and it’s well deserved. Both as a testament to a worthy fight that continues to this day in many respects – and just as a great film, full stop.