Witness women succeeding in the entertainment business! See “Suffragette” — it was written by Abi Morgan, directed by Sarah Gavron and produced by Alison Owen and Faye Ward. This is only Gavron’s third full-length feature. Morgan, who wrote Steve McQueen’s “Shame” and “The Iron Lady,” and had worked with Gavron on her first feature, rejoins her for “Suffragette.” Although the budget is that of an independent film at $14 million, this project is rich in texture and story, with extraordinary performances from Carey Mulligan, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Whishaw. It is based on the chronicles of the suffragette movement in England in 1912-13, a time when women were considered by law as inferior to men.
Mulligan’s character is a composite of the histories of several of the real participants in the movement. Mulligan’s art is such that she creates a very real persona. Writer Morgan did not set out to write a feminist film. She simply wanted to tell a story that needed to be told. In fact, the most of the men in the film are not villains. They are in touch with their consciences and genuinely troubled about the cultural/sociological clash that has arisen between men and women.
The film is set in working class London. Its heroine is a laundress. The environment is “Dickensian” bleak, yet Gavron and production designer Alice Normington have managed to endow it with a human warmth. Mulligan as the laundress, Maud, begins as a downtrodden and obedient product of the patriarchal society of the time, and transforms a step at a time into a passionate fighter. Her first encounter with the suffragettes is an accident. The memory of the incident begins to eat away at her concept of right and wrong. At a Q&A after the screening, Mulligan explained that she prepares for a role with extensive research, and then before she goes on set, she clears her mind by listening to music so that she does not overthink. She appears to simply become the character, an amazingly intuitive actress.
Whishaw creates an incredibly layered character as Maud’s long-suffering young husband, innately kind, caught up in social laws he feels he must uphold yet doesn’t entirely understand. Gleeson, as Inspector Steed, who is charged with finding and arresting the most incendiary of the suffragettes, builds a character who develops emotional conflict as he witnesses the heroic stoicism of his prisoners. Gleeson plays Steed with great nuance and magnetism as the battleground of social change intensifies. Director Gavron shrewdly hid information from the actors portraying a crowd of suffragettes about who would be playing the role of Emmeline Pankhurst, the charismatic leader of their group. When Meryl Streep stepped onto the balcony in her cameo role as Pankhurst to give a rousing rallying speech, there was an authentic gasp from the throng waiting below.
“Suffragette” is definitely not a “women’s film.” It is a movie with a gripping story that brings to life a piece of history that is unfamiliar to many in our country.
Rated PG-13. 106 minutes.
Kathryn Whitney Boole was drawn into the entertainment industry as a kid and never left. It has been the backdrop for many awesome adventures with crazy creative people. She now works as a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previously published reviews, see https://kwboole.wordpress.com.