28 December 2015 | 10:17 am | Eliza Berlage

"The film... shows a side to the movement less documented, and one with more potential to provoke outrage."

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette — set over 100 years ago in East London — shows how women's struggle for equality has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. 

We open on a visibly strained laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) completing hot, dangerous work for a measly sum in the Glasshouse laundry. Her boss lurks high above. He passes by uncomfortably close. He makes clear his predilection for sexually harassing his young female workers. The film, which centres on Maud's transformation from dutiful working class wife and mother to suffragette, shows a side to the movement less documented, and one with more potential to provoke outrage.

Previous historical tellings of the suffrage movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) document the words of comfortable bonnet-clad middle class women with the agency and finances to avoid the criminal prosecution and destitution of their families. For Maud and her friend Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) the consequences of being caught in the act of fighting for women's rights are beatings, humiliation and and ejection from their family homes. After being swept up in the charismatic heroism of local suffragette ring leader and pharmacist Edith Ellyn, Maud finds herself increasingly unable to ignore the cycle of women's subservience and takes up arms.

Mulligan's performance is gripping and clearly geared towards Oscar hopes, and rightly so. Her pain and perseverance in reuniting with her son when her husband denies access is heartbreaking. Accents are none too shabby and the conditions of East London proletariat dwellings adds a degree of historical authenticity. The narrative takes us on a ride through the women's 'stop at nothing' attitude of gun powder and mass disobedience — windows are smashed, letterboxes blown up and phone lines cut. This kind of rebellion is compared by villainous lords of Parliament as akin to terrorism. However, the black and white treatment of women's votes supporters and those opposed seems a little stretched and done deliberately to unequivocally glorify the suffragette "sacrifice".

There's no happy ending in this film. It would be more than a decade until some women in Britain were granted the vote, which makes for a dramatic epic that would be a little prolonged. Instead, the decision to reach a shocking climax in Emily Wilding Davison's (Natalie Press) death and martyrdom provides a fulfilling tale of resolution and solidarity.

It's a film that's been shrouded in controversy over its omission of the fight by non-white women and cringe-worthy marketing of T-shirts bearing Emmeline Pankhurst's controversial statement comparing women's inability to vote to enslavement. Thankfully, the actual movie itself — while still glaringly white-washed — grants primacy to the demands made by women whose respect for the law was conditional on the law being respectable, and who elevated their voices into instruments of change.