‘The Time Is Now’ reads the rousing tagline to Suffragette, which opens this year’s London Film Festival. Indeed, though there is still much ground to be covered, 2015 has seen a visible leap in the number of films featuring strong female roles, making the release of this considerate dedication to the women who fought to change the course of history for the better feel all the more important. The time to tell their story is most definitely now.
Curiously choosing not to directly concentrate on one of the many women from the movement whom history remembers, director Sarah Gavron – working once more with screenwriter Abi Morgan – instead pivots her film on a fictitious early feminist foot soldier, Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts, who stands as an epitaph to the many suffragists whose names have been lost.
We first meet Maud diligently washing dresses in a sweaty, seething launderette factory where she, like the many other women employed there, works long, hard and exploitative hours. Her only relief comes from the evenings spent with her affectionate husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and their young son George (Adam Michael Dodd, a consummate and extremely charming young professional). However, as her friendship with fellow worker and suffrage activist Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) begins to fuel her own feelings of injustice, Maud makes the decision and commits to the cause, joining the likes of Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) on the front lines.Well-intentioned and compassionate in its approach, there’s a hot-blooded honesty to Suffragette that makes it necessary viewing. Gavron wisely doesn’t sketch her film with the same smart, button-down style of most other period pieces; her image of London’s working-class suburbs, where the action is predominantly set, is authentically dark and dismal.
This is a tribute to the Suffragettes, the struggles they faced and the sacrifices they made in order to overcome their oppressors. The subject is, quite literally, the story, and as Maud begins to take on a more radicalised role as the plot progresses, we find ourselves thrust in to the very heart of the organisation’s civil disobedience campaign, with DP Eduard Grau’s handheld camera acting as a tightly composed and intensively in-depth window. There’s a euphoric sense of triumph and justice to the scenes of Maud, Edith and Emily efficaciously conducting militant missions in their fight for equality; a heart-breaking sadness to the portrait it paints of how commitment to the movement could cause domestic lives to collapse; and a traumatic pain to be felt watching the treatment of those suffragists forced to serve jail sentences as punishment for their protests.
It’s an immersive film, undoubtedly. However, it is also one that’s truly a struggle to wholly connect with. Morgan’s script moves at such a hurried speed that there’s barely any time for emotive energy infused within the topic to take hold. Maud’s successes are never as stirring and her agonies never as affecting as they should be.The pace is persistently pushed to breaking point as Morgan and Gavron hurtle towards their conclusion. Yet they still find time to shoehorn in a detrimentally distracting sequence that sees Maud briefly meet Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, doing just enough to ensure her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), and add in an utterly disposable subplot involving an insipid inspector (Brendan Gleeson, sturdy but squandered) constantly breathing down our heroine’s necks.
Carey Mulligan shines, of course – invariably all the actresses do, Helena Bonham Carter is exquisite. Maud’s transformation from spectator to supporter is the closet the film has to a narrative backbone, and in Mulligan’s capable hands it’s a change that feels natural; the pressure put on Maud compellingly turns her vulnerability into a vigour that’s set on victory.
Sadly, Sarah Gavron struggles to serve support to her performers though. While she has managed to overcome some of the issues that marred her previous collaboration with Morgan, 2007’s British indie drama Brick Lane, her direction is still discernably lacking in both strength and focus. And as such, Suffragette ultimately fails to find the urgency required for it to truly succeed.