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Movie Review of the Week – “Suffragette”

Movie Review of the Week – “Suffragette”
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By Alison Bailes

“Deeds not words” is the battle cry of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain in 1912. It’s a dangerous exhortation, especially these days when terrorism has become the evil twin of activism, and watching this film, it’s hard not to think of current social and political unrest around the globe. More explicit are the comparisons to modern day fights for equal rights, equal pay and equal education.

Carey Mulligan (“Far from the Madding Crowd”, “Drive”) is the emotional heart of the story, playing the fictional Maud, a working-class laundress in London. Despite her grueling work, abusive boss and impoverished existence, she is content, with an adorable son and a loving husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw, “Skyfall”). She hardly questions her lot in life until she witnesses a fellow worker committing a “civil act of disobedience” (throwing a brick through a shop window) with the rallying cry “Votes for women!” A mild interest becomes an overriding commitment as she is gradually politicized, ostracized and radicalized.

It’s a frightening evolution and one can’t help feeling that Maud is pushed to extremes by the very forces that are trying to stop her and her fellow suffragettes. It is through police brutality and prison deprivation (and later force-feedings) that she grows stronger in her determination to fight (shades of America’s War on Terror here). After 50 or so years of peaceful demonstration and petitioning for change, Pankhurst’s suffragettes feel like they have no choice other than to turn to acts of civil disobedience, including vandalism and bombings (with express orders not to harm anyone). Pankhurst is portrayed by Meryl Streep in a tiny, but commanding appearance.

Mulligan gives a powerful, wrenching performance as Maud, transforming from a reticent young woman to an outspoken advocate for her cause. Arrested and questioned by Police Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), her anger bubbles over in a riveting scene that elicits applause from audiences. Gleeson has an unsympathetic role, yet manages not to be simply the villain and Whishaw expresses the confusion of a simple man who casts out his wife when she causes a “disgrace” to his family. Equally strong are Anne-Marie Duff as Maud’s political co-worker and Helena Bonham Carter as the militant pharmacist’s wife who organizes meetings and protests.

Production design looks amazing with original costumes from the period and actual London locations used whenever possible. Cinematographer Eduard Grau shoots in a washed out palette of greys and blues and the hand-held camera work lends a fluidity and immediacy to the action. When the final scene dissolves into archival footage from 1913 you will feel roused and inspired…only to be horrified at the following scroll of dates documenting the years women got the vote in various countries.

A labor of love for the writer Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) and director Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), this project took over 6 years to come to our screens. And while people in the world still fight for basic human rights, the film will continue to be relevant beyond a simple history lesson. A perfect hybrid of the personal and the political, Morgan and Gavron have made a vibrant period piece that is timely and universal.

 

 

 

 

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