By Pamela Zoslov
In 1912 London, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) leads a life of unrelenting drabness. She works in a hot, steamy laundry in Bethel Green, where she and other women workers suffer burns, chest coughs, leg ulcers and sexual molestation by the boss, all for 13 shillings a week. David Lloyd George (David Schiller), Chancellor of the Exchequer and future prime minister, asks the soft-spoken young woman — who’s been suddenly pressed into speaking at Parliament on behalf of women’s suffrage — “What does the vote mean to you?” “I thought,” she responds thoughtfully, “there is another way of living this life.”
In telling the story of the struggle for women’s voting rights in England, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette focuses on the foot soldiers — working-class women who risked home, family and freedom to fight for equality against a government that wanted women kept in their place. Granting women the vote, officials are heard to warn, “will mean the loss of the social structure.”
Maud, a fictional creation, is vaguely dissatisfied with the patriarchal structure that means she’s at the mercy of her husband and employer, unable not only to vote but to determine the future of her adored boy, Georgie. Through a fellow worker, Maud learns about the growing suffragette movement. The suffragettes are followers of the famous Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), whose slogan is “Deeds, not words.” They have launched a campaign of civil disobedience: shop windows are broken, and women riot in the streets. Police beat and arrest the women, and newspaper headlines report “Wanton Damage by Suffragettes.”
Maud is persuaded by the rhetoric of equality (“Women are equal to men in their labors, and they should be equal in rights.”), and by her friend Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a smart chemist (pharmacist) who is a committed suffragette. (The character was based, at Bonham Carter’s behest, on Edith Garrud, a martial-arts instructor who trained suffragettes in self-defense).
The government is keeping the activists under close surveillance, with the help of Inspector Arthur Steed (a bearded Brendan Gleeson, looking like a sinister Kris Kringle). Steed is a conflicted character, at once sympathetic with the women’s cause and indifferent to their suffering. In one scene he looks on with apparent satisfaction as police brutalize the women protesters in the street.
Maud joins the protests and gets arrested. Her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), a very traditional chap, is enraged.“You’re my wife — act like a wife!” he commands.
After hearing from her followers, we at last meet Emmeline Parkhurst, the movement’s leader. Mrs. Parkhurst is played with slightly dotty hauteur by Meryl Streep, who starred as another British leader in Iron Lady, also written by Abi Morgan. Mrs. Parkhurst exhorts her rapt followers, “Deeds and sacrifice must be the order of the day,” and “We do not want to be lawbreakers, we want to be lawmakers!” She incites the women to commit acts of violence. “Never surrender. Never give up the fight!” Letter boxes are bombed, and a plot is hatched to dynamite Lloyd George’s vacant summer home, causing some women to defect. The suffragettes were like an early-20th-century British Weather Underground: some who believed in the cause were repelled by their violent tactics.
Maud, who now says “I am a suffragette after all,” rebels violently against her boss’ harassment, has another run-in with the police, and is cast out of her home. The broody, moody melodrama reaches its apex (or nadir) as Maud watches her beloved son, over whom the law gives her no rights, being taken away forever. I can hear Thelma Ritter’s Birdie from All About Eve: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”
The film’s period design is impressive, Eduard Grau’s cinematography paints a dark, murky London mostly unrelieved by sunlight, which matches Abi Morgan’s grim tale. Casey Mulligan, though perhaps too kewpie-faced for the hardscrabble Maud, is nicely emotive. Bonham Carter, always a pleasure, brings an interesting pedigree: she is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, prime minister of England 1908-16, an opponent of the suffrage movement.
While this earnest, well-intentioned film, set in 1912 and 1913, dramatizes women’s suffering, women’s suffrage didn’t come until 1918, when Parliament granted some women the right to vote. The suffragettes’ early tactics drew attention to the cause, but the victory was ultimately won by the suffragists, the non-militant wing of the movement. Grade: B