Opening the London Film Festival with a bang of intelligence and anger, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette **** is a fine film about political freedoms and choice.
Written by Abi Morgan and starring Carey Mulligan, Anne Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and, briefly, Meryl Streep (even shorter than her role in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, I note), the film plays like a thriller, a succession of clandestine meetings in the shadowy bricks of Bethnal Green.
Brendan Gleeson is the detective on the case while Lloyd George is the man in power. More lethal are the men at home, Ben Whishaw as a haplessly weak husband and Geoff Bell as the abusive laundry boss.
Gavron’s skill is in sidestepping cliches like so many puddles in the cobblestones. For all the superb period re-creation (loving those London buses), for all the frills and pinafores on show (it’s set partially in a laundry), this is no cosy costume drama in the Downton Abbey or Mr Selfridge mould. There is real grit that conveys the desperation of the women to be seen and heard, a seriousness of purpose that drives the action along.
Mulligan’s Maud Watts is the fictional character, an ordinary laundry worker who sacrifices everything to become a “dirty Pank”, but who finds comfort and meaning in her comrades’ commitment. She delivers another fine performance – where her Bathsheba Everdine in the recent Far From the Madding Crowd had fragility behind her steely exterior, Maud is a sort of flip side, a woman who discovers her mettle along the way, through prison torture to self-belief.
The film builds to Derby Day at Epsom and the famous moment of Emily Wilding Davison’s martyrdom (she’s played here by Natalie Press, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a while – welcome back), which is impeccably recreated according to the famous footage now on YouTube.
Gavron melts her own movie into history, a film intimately concerned with the fabric of society and film in which texture (as it did in her debut Brick Lane) plays a major part. To that end, we must also congratulate the superb Spanish-born cinematographer Edu Grau, who has a remarkable affinity for English light after training here, and whose saturated sepia tones strike just the right notes, more than perhaps does Alexandre Desplat’s score.
It’s an impressive production of the highest quality, that I’m sure will break out and be seen by large audiences for whom the film’s surprises and toughness will be a welcome change, as well as some kind of inspiration.