Suffragette (12A, 106 mins) Drama/Romance. Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Natalie Press, Geoff Bell, Adam Michael Dodd, Adrian Schiller. Director: Sarah Gavron.
Released: October 12 (UK & Ireland)
More than 100 years after activist Emily Wilding Davison drew global attention to women’s suffrage by dying beneath the hooves of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, Sarah Gavron’s awards-tipped drama pays tribute to some of the trailblazers who laid their lives on the line in the name of equality.
Davison is a peripheral character in Suffragette and her shocking act of self-sacrifice is relegated to the denouement of Abi Morgan’s script, which chooses to view the rebellion through the tear-stained eyes of a fictional heroine.
Historical fact and impassioned dramatic licence are awkward bedfellows.
The latter delivers the most emotional wallops as female protagonists suffer physical and mental abuse for daring to stand up for their beliefs.
Prison scenes are grim, but it’s one simple domestic scene of a family torn apart behind closed doors which really cuts to the bone.
Carey Mulligan is destined for a Best Actress nomination at next year’s Academy Awards for her gut-wrenching portrayal of a mother who loses everything she holds dear because she refuses to walk in a man’s shadow.
The London-born actress bares her soul for the emotionally demanding role, flanked by impressive supporting turns from Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter.
In 1912 London, Maud Watts (Mulligan) works long hours in a laundry with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw), under the glare of manager Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell).
Women earn less than men and are denied the vote, which rankles some of the workforce including outspoken mother Violet Miller (Duff).
She encourages Maud to join the suffragette movement and speak up against this injustice at a parliamentary panel hosted by David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller).
Alas, MPs refuse to honour a voting-rights bill amendment, so Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) stirs her troops into direct action.
“I would rather be a rebel than a slave,” she bellows to loyal lieutenants including pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Bonham Carter) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press).
Maud becomes heavily involved in the uprising and risks her relationship with Sonny and young son George (Adam Michael Dodd).
She falls victim to glowering Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who has been charged with breaking the women’s resolve and extinguishing the spark of rebellion before it can set London ablaze.
Suffragette foregoes the usual chocolate box period design, preferring a gloomier palette and nervous handheld camerawork.
Streep’s involvement is limited to a couple of scenes, allowing the predominantly British cast to shine.
Morgan’s screenplay is undernourished in key areas, lightly sketching the multitude of characters, and there’s a noticeable reserve when it comes to the violence and intimidation suffered by Violet and her daughter.
For all its narrative restraint, Gavron’s picture still moves and energises, reminding us that the fight for basic human rights continues to rage in progressive societies around the world.
By Damon Smith, Press Association