Most of the action in “Suffragette” takes place in 1912, but its impact stretches far beyond that. The end credits note that the efforts of the British women’s suffrage movement to obtain equal voting rights in the U.K. finally came to fruition in 1928; they then proceed to scroll through a timeline of other countries that followed suit, arriving at 2015 and the possibility that Saudi Arabia may finally catch up.
In that context, director Sarah Gavron’s celebratory chronicle would inspire strong reactions even if it wasn’t much of a movie, but the filmmaker compliments her powerful tale with the immediacy of her filmmaking and performances on the same level. It’s an unabashed message-driven story that imbues the past with modern power.
Though it does at times stumble on the occasional heavy-handed assertions, “Suffragette” never lacks the convictions of its leads, mainly thanks to a convincing lead performance by Carey Mulligan. As factory worker Maud Watts, Mulligan portrays a struggling working class woman uncertain she has the courage to revolt. Her process of confronting her misgivings and eventually speaking out form the crux of the movie’s emotional pull, as Maude is repeatedly torn between her evolving beliefs and her desire to care for her young child. While the movie deals with the famous public suicide of activist Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, Davison’s radical act takes on a secondary role. Instead it’s Maud, a fictionalized character, who provides a centerpiece for the narrative of “Suffragette,” as she embodies the hesitations that troubled many women of the time.
Eventually egged on by local activist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud gradually develops the convictions to join the suffragettes, who embraced energetic and at times even lively protest tactics to gather the attention of the government. Unwittingly thrust into the spotlight to deliver a testimony before local authorities after a fellow suffragette is beaten into submission, Maud winds up in the first of many grim showdowns with local officer Steed (Brendan Gleeson), and a series of tense exchanges that showcase her emerging worldview.
From the heated crowd scenes to bracing sequences in which the suffragettes risk their lives, Gavron (also a documentary filmmaker) manages to position Maud’s trajectory in a realistic context, aided in large part by cinematographer Edu Grau’s jittery handheld technique and Mulligan’s typically layered expressions. “Suffragette” ventures into didactic territory with the arrival of Meryl Streep in a single scene as famed suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, but the actor’s iconic connotations actually work in service of obvious intentions to let the real world peek into the narrative.
When Grau announces that she would “rather be a rebel than a slave,” her words register on a compelling level not only because they empower Maude, but also for the broader motivational spirit they reflect. It’s hard to accuse a movie designed to address a major social issue for being too preachy. “We’re half the human race,” Maude tells the authorities in the midst of her imprisonment. “You can’t stop us all.” The finality of that assessment turns “Suffragette” into the year’s best superhero movie that doesn’t star a bunch of guys.
More than that, “Suffragette” — a movie obviously primed for awards season chatter, and bound to remain in the spotlight for months to come — reflects renewed attitudes about activism around the world. At the Telluride Film Festival, “Suffragette” had company with Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala,” a reverential portrait of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai. Shot by the Taliban at age 15, Yousafzai’s continuing activism fits naturally with the contemporary climate for moving tales of resilient women. In quieter terms, Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama “Carol” also speaks to value of such vigorous campaigning, with its charged scene of a persecuted Cate Blanchett taking a dramatic stand against attorneys who deem her unfit for parenthood due to her sexual orientation.
However, with its motif of angry crowds shouting against mercilessly disinterested authorities, “Suffragette” address a much broader set of issues, as it taps into the merits of activism under dangerous conditions. That’s the centerpiece of Evgeny Afineevsky’s exceptional documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” which has also premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. Much like 2013’s “The Square” captured the early stirrings of the Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square from the center of the action, Afineevsky compiles an intense portrait of the 93-day Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine.
With up-close footage of police beatings and hordes of angry protestors calling for the country’s president to resign, “Winter on Fire” features the intensity of an action movie and the fury of a clear-eyed polemic. The filmmaker initially follows small scale protests against the government’s rejection of a free trade deal with the European Union, but their efforts quickly spread around the country. An exciting montage of the developing crowd ends with close to a million protestors gathered together at the center of town in a stunning act of defiance. That’s when police troops swarm in, hurling batons left and right, as blood fills the streets. Afineevsky captures these moments with just as much clarity, illustrating the extent to which authorities assumed they could easily silence the opposition.
It didn’t work. “This is fun,” announces one young protestor in early video footage shot in the midst of protests, while chaos swirls around him. As police continue to push back, the activists construct a series of obstacles and armor, constructing their own DIY army. Their stunning hardiness paid off, with Ukraine’s president eventually resigning in 2014. Afineevsky highlights the process of obtaining this victory from so many angles that it’s often hard to follow the arc of any given character, though that itself speaks to the national desire on display.
Among the various faces filmed by Afineevsky and his dozens of cameramen, “Winter on Fire” features a diverse collection of ages and genders glued to the streets. There are countless shocking confrontations between masked officers and harmless protestors on the receiving end of bullets, smoke bombs and other weaponry, yet none of it seems to have a lasting effect.
Despite the ongoing power of these scenes, “Winter on Fire” achieves its finest shot with a bird’s eye view of the Maidan protests, as thousands of activists push back against a black mass of officers and congeal into an insurmountable wall. With images like these, Afineevsky doesn’t need to push the message about the protesters’ durability; it’s right there on the screen.
By design, Afineevsky’s perspective on the Maidan protests is limited. Government authorities only speak up on massive television screens set up around the protests, never once delivering anything more than watered-down soundbites that further enrage the activists. The police officers, meanwhile — mainly young men cut from the same cloth as the people they’re assigned to oppress — occasional crop up from beneath their masks to show the sullen expressions hiding below. Their silence and complicity furthers the movie’s perspective on a country at war with its agenda.
Though it ultimately arrives at an uplifting outcome, “Winter on Fire” also serves as a bleak prelude to Ukraine’s current war with Russia. As with “Suffragette,” Afineevsky’s movie ends on a title card explaining the events that followed. Noting the thousands of Ukranian deaths from the current conflict that have taken place in the past year, “Winter on Fire” implies that no battle ends in a single victory.
“Winter on Fire”: A-
“Suffragette” opens nationwide on October 23. “Winter on Fire” will be available on October 9.