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D: Sarah Gavron / 106m

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, Geoff Bell, Samuel West, Finbar Lynch, Adrian Schiller, Meryl Streep

If you were to ask a hundred people, what was the Women’s Social and Political Union, and what was its purpose, most, if not all, wouldn’t be able to tell you. And yet the WSPU is perhaps one of the most important organisations in British history. Without its members and their tireless work, often in the face of police brutality and political intransigence, it’s very likely that women in the UK would not have been given the right to vote as early as they were (and even then it wasn’t until 1928). Suffragette, which looks at the Union’s activities in the run up to World War I, makes clear the level of sacrifice some of its members had to make in order to change the British political system for the better.

The struggle is seen through the eyes of laundry worker Maud Watts (Mulligan), wife of Sonny (Whishaw) and mother of their son, George. Maud is hardworking, has gained a certain degree of respect in the workplace, but at twenty-four has little future beyond what she’s already achieved. She appears to be accepting of her lot in life, but when a co-worker, Violet Miller (Duff), falls foul of their boss, Norman Taylor (Bell), Maud comes to her rescue and the two women strike up a friendship. Maud learns that Violet is a supporter of the women’s movement, and while she admires Violet’s courage and determination, she has no intention of becoming a suffragette.

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An invitation to speak before then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George (Schiller), is arranged for Violet, but she is unable to speak. Maud stands in for her, and is invited to tell her story. Lloyd George is clearly sympathetic, but when an announcement is made some time later, the law remains unchanged. Caught up in the violent struggle that ensues, Maud is arrested. She is questioned by Inspector Arthur Steed (Gleeson), who has been tasked with rounding up the Union’s ringleaders, including its head, Emmeline Pankhurst (Streep). Maud denies being a suffragette, but when she’s released a week later, it’s obvious that people think she is. Sonny is upset by her involvement, and she promises to stay away from the WSPU and its members. But when a secret meeting, to be addressed by Emmeline Pankhurst is arranged, Maud can’t help but attend.

From there, along with Violet and a local pharmacist, Edith Ellyn (Carter), Maud becomes more and more involved in the WSPU and its plans. Unable to deal with her increasing involvement, Sonny kicks her out, and refuses to let her see George. In the meantime, she leaves the laundry as well, and devotes her time to the Union. She takes part in the destruction of postboxes and telephone lines, and other acts of civil disobedience. She’s arrested again, and Steed offers her a choice: inform on the Union’s activities, or face longer spells in jail. With the women under both suspicion and surveillance, and with Pankhurst exhorting them to increase their attacks on the establishment, Maud has to decide if her future resides with the WSPU.

Suffragette wears its heart on its sleeve right from the start. As a movie about the struggle of women to gain the right to vote it takes an earnest, pragmatic approach, and while it often strays from the truth in its efforts to shoehorn Maud into the events that did happen (particularly in the scenes set at Epsom on Derby Day, when Emily Wilding Davison was run down by the King’s horse), it also narrows its focus too much in its efforts to tell its story.

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By choosing to tell the story of the WSPU’s struggle through the eyes of Maud, a neophyte in terms of the political landscape of the times, Abi Morgan’s script reduces the efforts and the sacrifices made by the real-life women of the time to the stuff of soap opera. From the disapproving looks of her neighbours as Maud walks home, to the reaction of Sonny after she goes back on her word, and even to the moment when she takes her long awaited “revenge” on Taylor for his bullying, rapacious behaviour, Maud’s journey from reluctant laundry worker to political activist is dealt with in such a clichéd, tick-box way that it robs the movie of any real drama. Indeed, the only time the movie achieves any kind of dramatic focus is when it opts to have Maud force-fed (something that happened to Davison forty-nine times; ironically, force-feeding was introduced after fellow suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop was released from prison after being on hunger strike for ninety-one days).

With the politics of the time reduced to the simplest level possible, and the history of the struggle barely referred to, the movie operates in a kind of historical vacuum. And worst of all, it lacks passion. With everything that happens (and was happening at the time), Suffragette lacks a true sense of the anger and frustration that women must have felt back then. Morgan’s script shows the determination they had, but between that and Gavron’s emphasis on making sure that each scene moves on to the next as quickly as possible, any potential exploration of what women truly felt about their social and political situation back in the pre-War years is avoided. Instead, Maud is used as a kind of generic marker; if it happens to her then it happened to every woman, and that was very bad indeed (that sounds very simplistic, but then so is the movie).

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On the performance side, Mulligan is dependable but is often asked to stand around observing while the likes of Duff and Carter do the heavy lifting. Gleeson does well as the Voice of Authority until a late script decision undoes all the good work he’s put in ’til then, Whishaw is the generally supportive husband who soon turns horrible simply because the movie needs him to, Garai is lost in a supporting role that keeps her on the edge of things throughout, Bell is once again called upon to be unconscionably malevolent, and Streep’s cameo lacks the gravitas it needs to be effective.

With radicalisation currently a hot topic, it would have been good to see Maud’s joining the WSPU in terms of indoctrination; after all, with their civil disobedience stretching to blowing up Lloyd George’s country home, it’s likely that they would have been described as terrorists if the word had existed in that context back then. But it’s an idea that’s never taken up, and like so many other areas where the movie could have gained some much needed depth, the need to keep it simple overrides all other considerations.

Rating: 5/10 – a so-so retelling of events leading up to 1914 and the outbreak of World War I (which really helped the suffragettes and their cause), Suffragette adopts a pedestrian approach to events of the time, and never comes alive in the way its makers probably intended; it’s ironic then, that in attempting to highlight the suffragettes’ fight for equality, the movie ends up portraying that fight in less than heroic terms.