Sarah “Brick Lane” Gavron’s resonant tale of the societal hardships placed upon women in the early 1900s focuses on a group of East End Suffragettes, and their Emmeline Pankhurst inspired uprising against the state, all culminating in that infamous Derby Day newsreel from Epsom Races.
It’s one of those films so often dismissed as “worthy”, at times veering into Sunday night television drama. But, largely thanks to an evolutionary piece of acting from Carey Mulligan, it steamrolls to become something so much more important and involving.
We’re dropped into the depressingly bleak world of Maud Watts (Mulligan), a factory laundrette worker. She’s the victim of her boss’s wandering hands, wife to Ben Whishaw’s repressed husband, and mother to a small boy, upon whom she dotes. Ordered to deliver a package after work, she is unwittingly caught up in a window smashing street protest organised by the Suffragettes, one of whom is her co-worker, Violet Miller (the terrific Anne-Marie Duff). Sparked by her daily oppression, a fuse is lit within, one that leads her to become part of one of the most significant political movements in feminist history.
Things start a little shakily, with Abi Morgan’s script reduced to rushed montages and sequences that feel like they’re a sing-song away from being a musical. The overbearing soundtrack doesn’t help, with the score booming ill-fittingly over dramatic proceedings, completely undermining the seriousness of it all.
Some of the characters, most disappointingly in Ben Whishaw’s case, are reduced to being narrative ciphers, asked to spout some terrible lines, or becoming pantomime villains, such as Geoff Bell’s leering boss. Only Brendan Gleeson is afforded more than the two-dimensions; as the chief investigator tasked with stopping the east London Suffragette gang he sees things for what they are, providing a balance to the more reactionary soundbite spouting male characters.
The film’s greatest strength, aside from the obvious message, is in Carey Mulligan’s turn, which propels the narrative, giving the cause a personality. Just as you’re thinking that a documentary might have served the facts better, she grows from wide-eyed spectator to angry protester, markedly improving the quality of the story.
We’ve seen Mulligan do melancholy repression before, but her transformation to letterbox exploding feminist terrorist is undoubtedly her finest hour yet. You’re right there with her during the moments of hesitation, equally so when she finally uses her hot iron to fist pumping effect. The sequence in which she asks her son to remember her name is heartbreaking stuff. She goes through the wringer and because of this you’re ready to hurl stones alongside these women.
Helena Bonham-Carter brings a wonderfully restrained turn as the leader of this East End ensemble; Natalie Press doesn’t get nearly enough to do considering she’s playing Emily Wilding Davison; and Meryl Streep is magisterial as Pankhurst for all of five minutes, making her something of a cynical marketing ploy instead of a fully-fledged character.
“Suffragette” certainly looks the part, with London subtlety recreated, and it builds with a momentum to suit the struggle. Real passion ebbs through a film which at times can be a tough watch, but for the first movie on this subject, it does a compelling job in stirring up your emotions.