Suffragette review: ‘Chilling and uncomfortably modern’

This film about the push for voting equality is a chilling reminder of our all-too-recent history, writes Michael Joyce.

There is a line in the theme tune to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads that goes, “The only thing to look forward to… the past” – a line that could be taken as the motto of the British film industry. Costume dramas aren’t always escapism, but if they do try to tackle important contemporary themes, it is always with that comforting safety net. The idea of a star-studded British film about the suffragette movement, with Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, is something to be greeted with a sense of dread; it smacks of the worst kind of smug, self-satisfied British film making, another undeserved pat on the back.

But Suffragette is not that film. Abi (The Iron Lady, Shame) Morgan’s script concentrates on a composite figure, Maud Watts (Mulligan), a working-class girl working in a laundry who is radicalised by a co-worker and by the sweeping brutality of the police response. It is packed with contemporary relevance and uncomfortable modern day parallels. It looks back to our dealings in Northern Ireland and at the present day problems with extremism. (The scenes where hunger-striking suffragettes are force-fed bear a striking resemblance to water boarding.)

Suffragette doesn’t escape all the absurdities of the costume drama. Streep’s Pankhurst is a cameo in which she appears to be channelling Dame Edith Evans, or maybe the Alec Guinness suffragette figure in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

It is a thoroughly depressing film, for any number of reasons. We have the historical irony of a past where there is hideous inequality, and callous employers exploit the workforce both financially and sexually, and where the downtrodden believe it would all change if they just had the vote. In the film most people genuinely see the idea of women voting as an absurdity; and not because they were all inherently evil, but because it seemed self-evident to them. As you watch the state trying to crack down on this bunch of extremists, and in so doing so invigorating and making them stronger, there is a chilling revelation that beliefs that we hold to be irrefutable and eternal could be quite fragile and difficult to defend.


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Rating: HHHHI

For a review of the Blu-ray release of Milos Forman’s classic Czech comedy The Fireman’s Ball, go to halfmanhalfcritic.weebly.com

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