Fighting. Courage. What is it we fight for? When do we need to show courage? What is life if we are not fighting for something? A fight doesn’t need to be visible to all. It may only be for us and our personal growth, or for our neighbour. Even then, it makes a difference in the world.
Sarah Gavron’s new film Suffragette, which tells the story of a group of working class women in London who fought for the right to vote around 1912, is a reminder of how far we’ve come and that perhaps we should more often ask ourselves “what are my rights, did my parents have them?”.
In this film, we are introduced to shy and discrete Maud (Carey Mulligan) who works as a laundry worker in East London. Along with a few of her friends and neighbours, she was born and grew up in the laundry house, which is supervised by an abusive male owner. One day, after listening to a woman’s speech about gaining the right to vote, she joins a first meeting in the presence of Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), also a laundress, and Edith (Helena Bonham-Carter), a pharmacist. This kind of meeting is however forbidden by the authorities, as the Suffragette movement has started being responsible for breaking windows and bringing chaos to certain London streets. As Maud gains confidence and starts to find purpose to her life thanks to the Suffragettes, her husband Sonny’s (Ben Whishaw) lack of support and police violence threaten her family and even her life.
The casting by Fiona Weir is quite a treat in this film, with a mix of actors from around the UK (well, except for Meryl Streep) and a main female group which seems very tight. There is a true sense of ensemble.
Mulligan invites us completely into her hopes and fears as Maud and it is very encouraging to watch her grow into more confidence and resilience. Whishaw, as Maud’s husband, is not out to get Maud deep down, but is narrow-minded and cannot understand the importance of the female vote or anything really changing. For the sake of pride and his financial situation, he forbids her from seeing their son, and even gives him up for adoption. Anne-Marie Duff as Violet shows boundless energy with a sense of nothing to lose. This battle means everything to her, and as she is yet again late at work and fired, her “Votes for women!” cry as she exits sounds more like a “F*** you”.
Director Gavron and Eduard Grau’s impressive cinematography often use temperatures and weather to illustrate the women’s struggles. The London wind and cold for example contrasts with the heat of the laundry house, its dangerous glass and sharp edges. We often see women looking through glass, gates or wire. While some doors open, as in the parliament, others are shut in their faces, for example when Sonny kicks Maud out of the flat and her only chance to see her son is through a window, under the pouring rain. And then of course there is the eternal symbol of the corset, which is joyfully taken off by Mulligan as she is back in her home towards the beginning of the film.
I must say I didn’t have a very precise image of the Suffragette movement (remember Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins?), but was moved by the tenacity of these women in the face of police violence, in the streets as well as in prison.
Suffragette is a must-see film which reminds us of what has been fought for and makes us thankful for the possible progress. But the fight is never over.