I spoke with Suffragette director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan because I wanted to do something besides write about how affecting and well-made their film is. Sappy as this sounds I felt obliged to do something for an experience that had really gotten to me. And then I saw Suffragette for the second time last night at the Academy premiere, and it sank in like it did five or six weeks ago in Telluride. No diminishment.
What’s with the 79% Rotten Tomatoes verdict? Suffragette is too stirring, too important, too well captured for any “well, yes but” responses. I was speaking to an older guy at last night’s after-party who shrugged and said “well, yes but a bit too much like a longform British TV drama.” No, not accurate. It’s a movie that lays it down and brings it home in 106 minutes. It pays tribute to rebels and tells the hard truth about what it costs to push back.
Suffragette is about the civil disobedience phase of the England’s women’s suffrage movement of 1912 and ’13, and much…actually most of it is about the hurt and the bruising.
It focuses on a group of five or six women (Helena Bonham Carter‘s Edith Ellyn, Natalie Press‘s Emily Davison, Anne-Marie Duff‘s Violet Miller, Romola Garai‘s Alice Haughton) but mostly on Carey Mulligan‘s Maud Watts, an exhausted and all-but-drained mother and factory worker who gradually “sees” and succumbs. Somewhat like Thomas Becket, she gradually falls for the honor of rebellion.
Suffragette will be, I would think, enthusiastically received by women everywhere, but it hasn’t been made “for” them. Well, I suppose it has but it’s mainly just good — a well-crafted, pro-level thing by a director deploying skills that are on the level of Steven Soderbergh‘s or Ridley Scott‘s in his prime, a director who knows how to keep things moving and realistic and affecting, and who has the smarts to use a first-rate cinematographer (Edu Grau), a blue-chip editor (Barney Pilling, who was nominated for an Editing Oscar for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel) and a world-class composer (Alexandre Desplat), and how to coordinate the elements to their fullest effect.
Women weren’t granted the vote because they smiled at lawmakers and said “please.” It happened because they pushed for it, and then pushed and pushed and pushed until it hurt. Power always has to be fought for, and this often means that the foot soldiers of any political movement will have to suffer deprivations. That’s what Suffragette, in part, is saying or reminding us of. It does this with skill and feeling and brevity. This is a much, much better film than Selma ever dreamed of being.