Deeds And Sacrifice Are The Order Of The Day As Suffragette Opens BFI London Film Festival

Credit: Pathe/Film 4
Credit: Pathe/Film 4

Tonight saw the start of the 59th BFI London Film Festival, and this evening’s Opening Gala movie was Suffragette which stars Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Anne-Marie Duff.

Suffragette tells the story of a group of working class London women and the part they played in the Suffrage movement, and how a group of ordinary women paved the way for women to given the right to vote.

Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a young mother who works in the Glasshouse Laundry, and Watts truly becomes the heart of the movie, and the audience follow her journey from a woman content with her lot to a woman willing to risk her life and her freedom to change the world. Watts meets Violet Miller, played by Duff, who introduces her the Suffrage movement and in this move Watts’ life takes a turn that left me speechless and in tears.

Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, the leader of the local group of Suffragettes and she is willing to follow the words of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Streep) even to the point of imprisonment and risking her life for the cause.  Bonham-Carter’s performance is understated yet heart wrenching, and one scene towards the end of the movie is one of the strongest performances I have seen Bonham-Carter give.

Mulligan’s performance as Watts is simply awe inspiring, and through the movie we see her lose the life she always thought she would have, and gain a new fight and strength even when she has lost everything.  The prison scenes were some of the most powerful in the movie, and reminded the audience what lengths these women were willing to go to in order to change history, and Mulligan in these scenes shows what a talented and brilliant actress she is.  Watts

Although we only see Streep’s Pankhurst in one scene in the movie, her performance is as usual nothing but amazing.  The movie reminds the audience that although Pankhurst is the most memorable name when anyone mentions the Suffrage movement, by the time we meet her in 1912 Pankhurst is an older woman who has been peacefully fighting for her cause for nearly 50 years, and that “war is the only language men understand”.

Although this is undoubtably a movie about women, the male characters are on the most part sympathetic and their actions help the audience to understand the context of the piece, and also the reasons why the Suffragettes are fighting.  Ben Whishaw plays Sonny Watts, Maud’s husband, who also works in the laundry and far from being a stereotypical view of a East End working class man, we see a man who is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is losing his wife to a cause he doesn’t fully understand. Mulligan and Whishaw’s final scene together is one of the most gut wrenching parts of the movie, and yet at no point did it feel that Sonny was being vindictive or nasty.

Hugh Ellyn, played by Finbar Lynch, showed that not everyone who was fighting for the cause were women.  Ellyn supported his wife and the other women through their endeavours with physical help and through a group called The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. By showing Ellyn in this light, it feels like the director Sarah Gavron, and the writer Abi Morgan are showing the audience a more balanced view of this time in history which is oft just remembered for women chaining themselves to fences and throwing themselves in front of horses.

The one male character who left me with the most questions about him was Steed, played by the fabulous Brendan Gleeson.  Steed is the police officer who heads up the surveillance of the women in order to attempt to stop them, however by half way through the movie I was left wondering just what side Steed was on.  On one hand he was tasked with upholding the law, and on the other it appeared he was sympathetic to the cause, and this was clear by his actions such as sending the women back to their husbands rather than arresting them, and complaining that the treatment of the women in prison was barbaric and inhuman.

Samuel West plays politician Benedict Haughton who is opposed to the Suffrage movement even though his wife is a member of the movement.  It has to be said that Haughton is the one character that it is very hard to have sympathy for, however it could be argued that Haughton is simply a man who doesn’t understand why the world he thinks works so well needs to change.

At no point does this movie feel like the stereotypical “based on true events” film it could have so easily become.  The movie was a decade long labour of love for Garvon and the way she and Morgan mixed real life characters such as Pankhurst, Ellyn, and Emily Wilding Davison with fictional women such as Watts.  Davison was the woman who threw herself in the path of the King’s race horse during the Epsom Derby and her death brought the UK Suffragette movement to the attention of the world.

Suffragette is a truly wonderful piece of film making which still has relevance in the world today, and one can only hope that this movie is seen by as many people as possible.

Suffragette is released in the UK on October 12, and in the US on October 23.

Kirsty Wallace
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