On June 4 1913, militant activist and suffragette Emily Wilding Davison threw herself to her death in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom derby. The incident is by far the most dramatic moment in Suffragette, which tells the story of the British suffragettes who campaigned for women’s right to vote and stand for election in the five years leading up to it. But Davison’s self-sacrifice (played out by Bafta-winning actor Natalie Press) is shown only fleetingly, and the movement’s figurehead Emmeline Pankhurst (a brief but effective Meryl Streep) is afforded similarly little screen time.
Instead, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan (who co-wrote Shame with Steve McQueen) document the period through the eyes of fictional east London woman Maud. Played devastatingly by Carey Mulligan, Maud is a working class washerwoman and doting mother who gets caught up in revolution when fate forces her to testify about her rough working life. Previously, Maud’s meekness and loyalty to her son and husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) had kept her away from the suffragettes, but she quickly finds herself at the centre of a violent struggle.
Maud leads us into the fight via a series of troubling scenes. When Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s Government denies a bill to give women the vote in 1912, protestors outside Parliament are set upon by police and dragged violently to prison. Another sequence shows the suffragettes – including a fanatical Helena Bonham Carter as pharmacist Edith, who describes herself as a “soldier” – being force-fed while on hunger strike in prison, something Asquith deliberately approved in Parliament. Most heart wrenching of all, Maud’s activism causes Sonny to throw her out of their tiny flat and keep her from seeing their son.
It would be easy to say Suffragette documents a past problem, one solved when David Lloyd George’s Government gave British women the vote in 1918. But the list of dates that other countries passed similar legislation that rolls over the credits is a timely reminder that not everywhere is so advanced. You’ll struggle to find a more moving film this year.
- Director: Sarah Gavron