Suffragette Reviewed From A Female And Male Perspective
The BFI London Film Festival kicks off today with the mighty London-set drama Suffragette. We sent along hardened feminist Ioanna Karavela and male chauvinist swine Stuart Black to see what the film is like from both the female and male points of view.
The female review
Sure to ignite discussion, Suffragette focuses on a group of East End women in 1911 who joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, and participated in the increasingly strident campaign to win women the right to vote. On paper it sounds like another British historical drama, but don’t expect a slow-paced, romantic tribute of the Suffragettes’ achievements. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) aren’t interested in prettifying the past and charge their canvas with grim visions of female repression and consequent righteous anger. Surprisingly, Eduard Grau’s cinematography is close-up, dirty and hand-held, putting an urgent contemporary spin on the familiar subject matter.
Carey Mulligan delivers a gripping, well-crafted and at times inspiring performance as Maud Watts, a wife and mother who was born and worked all her life in a Bethnal Green laundry-house. Maud is nudged — first slowly then unstoppably — into a realisation that any possibility of changing her fate lies in signing up and taking direct action. That this might come at the price of her family life is the central dilemma at the centre of the story, with domestic strife for Maud seeming to be as hard to bear as the punishments she endures for daring to speak out.
Across the board, the performances are commendable with the female cast stealing the show. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Marie Duff are eminent as other core members of the group, while Meryl Streep appears in a brief but potent cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, delivering her notable 1913 speech calling for civil disobedience.
Some of the brush strokes are over-emotional and at times the gushy score lets the film down, though perhaps this is an inevitable characteristic of mainstream moviemaking today. Suffragette is well worth going to see and reminds women how recent our equal rights history is. And therefore how fragile too. The end credits hammer home the message that there’s still work to be done with 2015 being the year women have been promised equal rights in Saudi Arabia. I’m originally from Greece, a country where the right for women to vote was achieved in 1952 and where dowry was not abolished until 1983; this overtly political story connects dots between cultures and asserts the idea that I can only be a feminist and that’s OK.
The male review
So the message of this film is clear: how absolutely bloomin’ impossible it was for men in the early 1900s to control their uppity women. When we should have been busy polishing our buttons and waxing our moustaches, instead we had to contend with wives and mothers bricking windows, blowing up post boxes and scrapping with hard-working coppers. How the Empire survived is a miracle.
Suffragette certainly puts the period in period drama; actually, scratch that, this film isn’t a period drama at all — forget all that restrained Merchant Ivory fluff — it's a war film, complete with Saving Private Ryan style shaky-cam during the near-constant scenes of physical and emotional violence. Intense isn’t the word, with the apex being a barely-watchable scene that shows how the Edwardian solution to hunger strikers makes waterboarding look like a birthday present. Director Sarah Gavron not only puts the audience through the wringer, she feeds them right into the mangle then finishes them off in an industrial steamer.
This rabble-rousing epic is more than a historical depiction of the women’s rights movement in London, and examines the broader idea that terrorism is freedom fighting, depending on where you stand. As such it addresses topical concerns, particularly about militancy in the Middle East and here at home. The binding point at the heart of this emotionally-draining movie is that everyone is part of society and if we don’t bring them all inside it then division and inequality will cause tension that can only explode.
The male actors, by the way, are all excellent. Ben Whishaw is quietly devastating as a troubled husband trying to hold his head up in society while his wife blows up country cottages. While Brendan Gleeson and Geoff Bell as the major and minor antagonists — a copper with a conscience and a slimy factory manager — are as formidable as a pair of Bond villains. Together they help add (some) complexity to the depiction of a suffocating man's world that women felt they had no choice but to rebel against. It may be full of manipulative melodrama but make no mistake Suffragette will be storming the barricades this award season. I'm in: now where do I sign up for these women's rights?
Suffragette will have its UK premier tonight in Leicester Square with the film going on general release nationwide from 12 October.
Last Updated 27 November 2015