Suffragette ★★★½

From the first brief teaser, I knew this was going to be a film of historic importance. A woman of unimpeachable merit, who cinema had ignored for too long, was finally going to be seen on the big screen. I had my doubts that it could ever be done, but when I saw that clip - the cheeky grin, the cry of "Votes for women!", the broken window - I knew it was really happening.

Yes, at last, Anne-Marie Duff was going to have a substantial role in a wide-release movie. Also Meryl Streep was going to appear as someone or other.

Streep's top-billed, rather Thatcheresque cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst aside, this is a solid fictionalisation of the militant stage of the British votes for women campaign. And although it does contain enough Anne-Marie Duff for my demanding tastes, my favourite parts were the ones focusing on Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Nathalie Press's direct action campaign. They come across as a kind of distaff Army of Shadows, and the film is thrillingly insistent on the principle that direct action was necessary in this case.

If only director Sarah Gavron had something of Melville's patience. When the camera remains still enough to allow you to actually see Edu Grau's cinematography, it really is stunning; naturally lit, full of diffuse shadows, grainy and tactile. Unfortunately most of the film is shot in antic shakycam, which only feels appropriate in the final set-piece. There's a moment right at the start, for instance, where Mulligan's not-yet-radicalised Maud unwittingly stands in between a group of suffragettes giving each other non-verbal cues to action. If the scene had been a little stiller, it could have matched up to or even beat similar scenes of wordless communication in The Falling and Django Unchained, but it's just another incident the film bustles through.

The film bustles an awful lot, and it could have done with an extra ten or fifteen minutes to let Abi Morgan's incident-heavy script breathe. But it never felt lightweight to me, largely because of Carey Mulligan's perfectly pitched lead performance. She's now able to get so much across in a verbal inflection or a reaction shot that it doesn't matter how busy the narrative she's caught up in might be; her performance will always feel fleshed-out.

Cinema hasn't really engaged much with the women's suffrage movement since the days when it was a current affairs story. For this reason, Gavron and Morgan have an impossible task; they have to make not only a suffragette movie, but the suffragette movie. They don't manage this as skilfully as Steve McQueen managed to make the slavery movie, but I found it easy to forgive the movie's flaws. Its politics are impressively nuanced, acknowledging that the privilege that gives Romola Garai's Alice Haughton the courage to speak out also makes her hopelessly ineffective at communicating to the masses, and making both Maud's radicalisation and her husband Sonny's increasingly reactionary attitude feel natural in their development.

Sonny is an effectively cast-against-type Ben Whishaw. The other prominent male character is Brendan Gleeson as a detective investigating the lead characters' civil disobedience. The most interesting contemporary parallel in this film - even more so than the throwaway mention of the Prime Minister's holiday home being funded by the editor of the News of the World - is his use of up-to-the-minute cameras for surveillance purposes. And it backfires, too, pushing Maud into the arms of Pankhurst's followers by lumping her in with them.

Both Maud and Pankhurst say they want to see women make the laws, not just live by them, and from that viewpoint the career of Theresa May is a fulfilment of the promise of the suffragette movement. From other viewpoints, I couldn't help but wonder what the characters in this film would have made of a female MP expanding the surveillance state in such an unprecedented way as she plans to.

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