Suffragette is one of those films in which the parts are greater than the sum. Or, in this instance, the part, singular, as it’s Carey Mulligan’s central performance that gives this the emotional power it might otherwise lack, and the sense of involvement it might otherwise lack, and she therefore saves the day, thank Christ. This is a story that deserves to be told, and it would have been a tragedy had it entirely got away. Here we do, at least, see that these women didn’t just ninny about while wearing elaborate hats, as the stereotype sometimes has it, but were astoundingly heroic and brave, enduring endless rounds of prison and hunger strikes and being force-fed. I truly think I’d only have needed to see the force-feeding trolley coming at me the once to say: ‘OK, guys. You’ve made your point. Didn’t want to vote much, anyhow.’ I would have also got smartly out of the way of any oncoming horses.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), Suffragette is written by Abi Morgan (Brick Lane, Shame, The Hour and The Iron Lady, which was also a performance film, come to think of it). It’s told through the eyes of a woman at the sharp end; that is, a working-class woman, rather than the higher-class, elaborate-hatted women most versions of these events seem to prefer. Our woman is Maud (Mulligan), who is plain-hatted, lives in Bethnal Green, and works in the laundry she has worked in since she was seven. The laundry is a hellhole involving scalding irons, scalding chemicals and scalding water. Maud’s mother, we are given to understand, also worked here and was killed by a vat of such water. Maud works longer hours than the men, for less money, and for a slimy boss who can’t keep his hands to himself, shall we say. Maud has a husband (Ben Whishaw) and a young son over whom she has no rights. Maud, in other words, is subject to most of the gender injustices of the time, and it would, perhaps, feel like some kind of injustice roll call, had Mulligan not been able to make us believe that Maud is out there; that Maud is real.
Maud, as it happens, is quite the model employee, and becomes involved in the suffragette movement almost against her will, when she gets caught up in a group of protestors throwing bricks through a shop window in the West End. (The mis-en-scène is terrific; it’s not until you’ve seen Regent Street, circa 1912 that you realise how much you have always longed to see Regent Street, circa 1912.) This is the point at which the suffragettes, who had tried peaceful rallies without getting anywhere, upped their ante to civil disobedience: throwing bricks; bombing postboxes; cutting telephone wires. Maud is pulled into the cause by a workmate, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), as well as the local chemist, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter, thankfully de-witched for once). Meryl Streep makes an appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst, but it’s a bit of a swizz that she has her name on the poster, as she’s in it for two minutes, tops. (She also plays Pankhurst as Margaret Thatcher playing Pankhurst; seriously bizarre.) Meanwhile, Maud has come to the attention of the police, and of one officer in particular (Brendan Gleeson) who wants her to be his spy. The cause will not succeed, he tells her. No one will listen to you, he tells her. ‘You are nothing,’ he concludes, but this, of course, only galvanises her further in the opposite direction.
There are clunky script moments, just as there are clunky plot contrivances, and it is soapily manipulative, particularly when it comes to Maud and her little boy, and particularly when it comes to the manner of Violet’s daughter and how she is saved. (The plotting is supremely Downton-esque here.)Plus, you don’t ever get a proper sense of the movement in its entirety, and the main protest scenes, during which the police brutally beat up the women, and which should have been shocking, never seemed anything other than staged. But as a journey of one woman’s political awakening, from meek acceptance through to hardcore fury, it flies. I don’t know what it is about Mulligan. Her face, as I’ve said before, is one of those faces you can’t stop watching, and she can also get at every particle of a character’s thinking and feeling as those thoughts and feelings shift and change. She barely requires a script. Indeed, there’s one scene where she wants to make her son laugh, so she dances for him in the rain as he watches from a window. It will make you cry more than any dialogue ever could. So she saves the day, and saves a story that deserved to be told. Hats off to her, and it doesn’t matter what type of hat it is. It was never about hats, just so we’re clear.