Suffragette feels like an important – and timely – film. There’s a bit of a feminist backlash going on at the moment, with cries of “feminazi” and “what about the men?” drowning out the fact that all feminists have ever really asked for is equality, which shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Suffragette brings to the screen the stories of the unknown women who fought the cause. The casting of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst cleverly highlights this shift in focus: the most high-profile actor has a cameo role, as does the figurehead of suffrage. This film is all about the less-exalted stars of the women’s movement: working-class washerwomen like Maude and Violet (Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff) and middle-class professionals such as Edith, a pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter). Their lives are tough and unforgiving, and they have little control over anything. Their husbands own their property, their children. No wonder they want something more, or at least the right to have a say.
But, as ever, change is difficult to effect: the beneficiaries of the status quo are reluctant to let go, and others are afraid to rock their fragile boats. Here, we see Maude vilified and reviled as she begins to speak up for herself, and the reality of what she’s lost hits home – both for the character and the audience – when we see her son adopted because her now-estranged husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw) thinks she will corrupt the boy. Sonny is bereft too: he’s threatened and undermined by Maude’s assertion of her rights; he’s a decent man who doesn’t understand. His tragedy is real as well. Everyone’s trapped by the rigidity of societal norms: Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Arthur Steed feels some sympathy for the women, but that doesn’t stop him locking them up or allowing them to be force-fed.
Abi Morgan’s script is well-balanced: dispassionate and informative as well as emotive and personal. It’s a truly moving tale of the past with a message for the future: as Maude says, speaking tentatively to Lloyd George, “This life… I thought there might be a better way to live it.”