Suffragette

Director: Sarah Gavron (2015)

Political passion and personal punishment power a prodigious performance in this stirring historical drama.

In the dark, violent world of 1912, a young mother risks everything as she battles the government for the right to vote.

Fictitious characters mix with real people and events to create a gripping story filled with emotional truth.

Following her excellent turn in Far From The Madding Crowd (2015), Carey Mulligan gives another mesmerising performance as factory worker and reluctant activist Maud Watts.

Her young son George is ominously diagnosed by Helena Bonham Carter’s chemist as ‘a bit chesty’.

Hardworking and aspirational, Maud is drawn into the bosom of the suffragettes and their world of nighttime rallies, back room meetings and property attacks.

Soon she feels the full force of the law in the form of the intelligence gathering Special Branch and truncheon wielding constables.

With Maud’s behaviour considered to be madness not badness, she’s ostracised, beaten, jailed and endures a hunger strike.

Radicalised by her experiences, she is soon waging a guerrilla war alongside veteran campaigner Emily Davison.

It mostly involves blowing up the UK’s communications infrastructure. i.e. postboxes.

Corrupt politicians collude with the media to keep the violent campaign off the front pages.

In desperation to  be heard, the women seize upon a target so big as to be impossible to ignore.

At times the heartbreaking events resemble the grimmer moments of Les Miserables (2012). With the thankful exception of the awful sing-alongs.

It’s an inspiring tale of kindness, courage and comradeship Which at times tries too hard. We’ve long since been won over by Maud by the time she’s reduced to waiting in the rain.

An intelligent script insists the women are fighting a war and the dialogue includes frequent exhortations for them never to give up.

It celebrates their bravery and solidarity against the state who use covert surveillance and brutality to suppress a popular political uprising.

However it aligns the direct methods and organisational prowess of the suffragettes with historical and contemporary terrorist groups such as the IRA.

This may prove problematical to viewers. It’s certainly the starting point for an interesting debate.

Cinematographer Edu GrauIt captures the drama in palettes of browns and greys, as films of this sort so often are.

Better known as James Bond’s Q, soft spoken Ben Whishaw is counter-intuitively cast as Maud’s working class barrow boy husband Sonny.

His subtle acting suggests a marriage of convenience and as the story progresses, Sonny’s feebleness adds perspective to Maud’s situation.

Geoff Bell stops shy of pantomime as an abusive factory boss and the film is not too sure what to do with Brendan Gleeson’s cop. His concerned reasonableness challenges you to remember he’s one of the guys.

Meryl Streep makes a brief and typically stagey appearance as head girl Emmeline Pankhurst. It veers towards an impersonation of Maggie Smith in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In The Iron Lady (2011) cinema’s grand dame won an Oscar for playing the famously unsisterly first female Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

During her divisive time in office she was not for turning when it came to civil unrest and terrorist campaigns.

Spoken of in hushed voices in her absence, Pankhurst addresses a crowd messianically from a balcony and a signed book is passed around as if a holy relic.

This is the nearest religion comes to being referenced in the film.

There are no priests in the church which offers sanctuary to the dispossessed and the position of the established church seems to be one of benign neutrality.

This despite organised religion having a poor track record in the public arena of women’s rights.

Made In Dagenham (2010) showed car factory workers campaigning for equal pay in the 1970’s. Suffragette is a spiritual prequel and in the 60 odd years between the periods portrayed, it’s sobering to realise how little progress had been made.

As a representative of all the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, Mulligan’s emotional performance puts us at the heart of their struggles against the established order.

She easily wins my vote for 2016’s Best Actress Oscar.