It is an astonishing thing, to know there was a time when women weren’t valued enough to be allowed governance of their own rights. It took us so long, and the struggle is never-ending, because to fight requires sacrifices that are near impossible to make. Fighting and protesting means being exiled, alienated, belittled, resented, hated. You see it today on the internet where misogyny reigns supreme. You see it coming from both men and women, always with the message: shut up and sit down. In the face of all that, it would have been easy for Suffragette to turn into an angry screed, but Gavron isn’t much interested in focusing on the anger. Women in the twilight of the 19th Century did not have the luxury of indulging in anger because they were in enough trouble as it was.
Mulligan plays a good wife and mother who works in a laundry, suffers sexual harassment, long hours and much less pay than her male counterparts. She is reluctant to join the movement until its cause becomes too urgent — and the injustices too egregious to ignore. She joins a group of women who are fighting for the vote — and with it, the right to declare that they are worth “no more and no less” than men. This is a film about what Mulligan’s character endures on the treacherous path to equality.
Gavron holds Mulligan’s face in tight closeup through the film, rarely pulling back for long shots. No director has ever done that with this actress, so that avid quality that might once have projected vulnerability throughout her work is transformed here into tenacious inner strength, a keen resolve that the camera can only catch when it pulls in close. With her half smile, her heavy lidded sad eyes, Mulligan’s Maud Watts is her best performance to date. Carey Mulligan is the number one reason to see this film and she’s the thing that will make this film impossible to ignore come awards time. She carries it the way actresses used to do back when more women were given this kind of opportunity.
The supporting cast are all top notch, including Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff. Each one of them more than capable of having better parts and better roles written for them. With so much talent packed into two hours, it is a reminder of how few films like this exist anywhere. Telluride is unleashing the full force of the feminine this season, with this film, He Named Me Malala, and Carol. These are films about the sort of empowerment that means more than finding oneself on a spiritual journey. These films confront some of the forces that have oppressed and continue to oppress women the world over, including Hollywood itself.
Meryl Streep — who was in attendance the premiere, received a standing ovation. She had maybe five minutes of screen time but Streep knows full well what a movie like this means. Produced, written, directed by and starring women, this isn’t one the Oscars can pass by and sleep easy at night. The direction is unpredictable, moody and never goes for the easy emotional cheat. That one big crescendo is absent here, and in its place what is meant to be read as an ongoing struggle for women’s rights. One need only look at the presidential election to see how women are both on the precipice of equality and at the same time judged by a different standard, still measured by what they look like and whether or not they smile.
The costume design by Jane Petrie recalls an authentic, grimy London lifestyle that goes well with the no-makeup look of the film’s stars and the gritty cinematography by Eduard Grau. Once again, Alexandre Desplat outdoes himself with one of the film’s best assets — it’s suspenseful score.
Indeed, Suffragette will be recognized as one of the year’s best films not because it makes you beat your chest and celebrate women having won a hard-fought battle but because it may be one of the few films on the subject that makes it point by showing what individual women had to go through on a person level. It is Mulligan’s story but how many more women like her were punished for even thinking about wanting more.
Gavron is a relative newcomer with feature films but finds in Mulligan the perfect focal point. She could have told this story with any actress in the lead and it would have been good. With Mulligan in the lead the film becomes great. It becomes great because Gavron immerses us fully in this world — we can smell it, we can taste it, we can feel it wrap tightly around our necks until we want to scream. Suffragette is a master work.