#LFF 2015 BFI London Film Festival: SUFFRAGETTE Review

Posted on Oct 7 2015 - 10:21pm by Andy Caley


Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, Natalie Press, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Samuel West, Geoff Bell, Morgan Watkins, Lorrain Stanley, Lisa Dillon and Adrian Schiller

Rating: 12A/PG-13

Running Time: 106 minutes

‘Fact is stranger than fiction’ is a phrase that many use to trump films ‘based on true stories’ (although, how ‘true’ is another matter entirely) over fiction films. And, while I think that’s a slightly flippant comment, there is some credence to the argument when we understand that fact can never be more horrifying than fiction. Recently, we’ve seen a spate of incredible films, like 12 YEARS A SLAVE and THE ACT OF KILLING, that attempt to address the cases in history of humanity’s most despicable acts, acts which are now embedded in our past, from which we have to acknowledge and make some form of reconciliation. We can now add to that category SUFFRAGETTE.

SUFFRAGETTE follows the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who, whilst doing all she can to be a good mother for her son, fights for dignity with the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement. Simply saying, “Votes for women!”, and protesting peacefully has proved futile, which means turning to violence as the only language the brutal and unforgiving patriarchal State can understand. These working women, who had before been silenced and outcasted by bosses and husbands if they spoke out, risk their lives for the betterment of women for future generations, for the same rights as men, for gender equality.

SUFFRAGETTE exists in this paradox where it expresses its feminist message so brilliantly, and yet we’re still living in a society where this kind of message has relevance. This was something that I brought up in the press conference that followed, with Streep,  Mulligan, writer Abi Morgan, and director Sarah Gavron in attendance. I asked whether, more than just frustrating, do the panel find the subject of gender inequality, the fact that there are still people and industries, like those depicted in the film, who firmly believe that women should be treated as inferior, just completely baffling. Sarah Gavron replied that it is baffling because the incapability of women as filmmakers has been statistically disproved. She draws attention to the fact that 46 of the feature films at this year’s London Film Festival are directed by women (something which garnered an applause). Plus, SUFFRAGETTE, along with many other events, are getting people to talk about gender imbalance, which is in itself very encouraging. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, commented on the state of the blatant inequality in the world of film criticism, referring in particular to U.S. film critics. She used Rotten Tomatoes, the review accumulating website, as an example:

“I went deep, deep, deep, deep into Rotten Tomatoes, and I counted how many contributors there were – critics and bloggers and writers. […] Of those people that are allowed to rate on the Tomatometer, there are 168 women. And I thought, ‘that’s absolutely fantastic.’ And, if there were 168 men, it would be balanced. If there were 268 men, it would be unfair, but I would be used to it. If there were 368, if there were 468, if there were 5, 6-… actually there are 760 men who weigh in on the Tomatometer. Now, I submit to you that men and women are not the same; they like different things, sometimes they like the same things, but sometimes their tastes diverge. If the Tomatometer is sided so completely to one set of tastes, that drives box office in the United States, absolutely. So, who are these critics, bloggers and so on? I went on the site of the New York Film Critics. The New York Critics have 37 men…and 2 women. And then, I started to go on all the sites of the critics, and…the word isn’t ‘disheartening’, it’s ‘infuriating’! Because people accept this as received wisdom, “This is just the way it is.” And you can take every single issue of feminine rights, female rights, in the world and examine it under the same rubric because it isn’t fair. So, we need inclusion, Rotten Tomatoes, this year should say, “It has to be equal. Half and half.”

Meryl’s passion on the subject of gender equality is an encapsulation of the film’s entirety; SUFFRAGETTE is a fiery take on those who had had enough of the barriers that had been wedged between gender for centuries (and still are in many societies). What is so striking about SUFFRAGETTE, a lot of the credit going to director Sarah Gavron, is that it maintains the balance of playing broadly enough to draw in the widest possible audience, and at the same time, is absolutely unafraid to confront its viewers with the full horror of what these women endured, women who simply wanted to he heard in a patriarchal society that refused to listen.

In the press conference, Carey Mulligan expressed how little she knew of the Suffragettes, their work condensed to about four lines in a history textbook when she was learning about them at school, and was thus shocked when she did her research to discover the full extent of the situation. Now, children are being educated more and more on the subject of the Suffragettes in history and in other lessons as well. But, it would be wonderful if this film were to be put to even further uses: a teaching tool for young girls (and even boys) who are lacking in confidence, or for those who are still of the opinion that women should be seconded to men, to show that, even after being put through such barbarity as force-feedings and beatings on the street, they continued to fight like soldiers on the battlefield. The film shows the bravery of these women, who had families and lives to support, doing all they could to provide the next generations of women a life with as equal opportunities as men. And, when we see present-day working women and working mothers, we should count our blessings that the work of the Suffragettes was not in vain. There is still a way to go, but the passion of SUFFRAGETTE is so much so that you walk out of the cinema and look to join Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign.

Every cast member is fantastic; Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and the unrecognisable Anne-Marie Duff all look convincingly exhausted both by the pains of their world and by their exhaustion of changing it. In the case of the male characters, Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) and Mulligan’s on-screen husband, Sonny Watts (Ben Whishaw), writer Abi Morgan spoke, in the press conference, how she wanted the men to be as complex as the women characters. While I personally feel that they lack the full complexity Morgan says they have, there is certainly a conflict within these men, who can see these women in pain, and yet, like SS officers following orders, they abide by the law. Also, the cinematography (by Eduard Grau) looks fantastic; a grainy and smoky screen, with the colours drained, as though the barbarity of the State has poisoned the screen.

While it may not be as good as 12 YEARS A SLAVE or THE ACT OF KILLING (Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst, while Churchillian in character and a major figure in the suffrage movement, is largely side-lined, despite what the posters may suggest), SUFFRAGETTE is still a remarkable achievement that uses the medium of film in one of the best possible ways: as a form of pedagogy, something that will enlighten men and women of this piece of history, taking it as a lesson for the need of gender equality. It is a confident and often, like the abovementioned films, shocking picture where you will find yourselves looking away in horror, as the case should be. But, like the director said, it will get people talking about the issues it addresses. It is because of all this that this film will stand the test of time and that is reason enough to celebrate. As Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst says, “Never surrender, never give up the fight,” because the time for gender equality is, indeed, now.


SUFFRAGETTE is released in UK cinemas on the 12th October, and in US cinemas on the 23rd October.

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